The problem with neuroplasticity

June 10, 2010 at 2:07 pm 11 comments

Dr. Vaughn Bell, a contributor to the stimulating Mind Hacks blog, explains, “As your brain is always changing, the term neuroplasticity is empty on its own“:

It’s currently popular to solemnly declare that a particular experience must be taken seriously because it ‘rewires the brain’ despite the fact that everything we experience ‘rewires the brain’.

It’s like a reporter from a crime scene saying there was ‘movement’ during the incident. We have learnt nothing we didn’t already know.

Neuroplasticity is common in popular culture at this point in time because mentioning the brain makes a claim about human nature seem more scientific, even if it is irrelevant (a tendency called ‘neuroessentialism’).

Clearly this is rubbish and every time you hear anyone, scientist or journalist, refer to neuroplasticity, ask yourself what specifically they are talking about. If they don’t specify or can’t tell you, they are blowing hot air. In fact, if we banned the word, we would be no worse off.

In his critical and necessary essay,Vaughn clearly explains the differences among a host of structural changes in the brain, including synaptogenesis, neuronal migration, and neurogenesis.


Below is an engrossing Discovery Channel production about the fascinating resilience and adaptability of the human brain.


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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Josh  |  June 10, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    I read this a few days ago, and found it a little confusing.

    The author says the phrase “the brain is plastic” and the word “neuroplasticity” are meaningless, but then goes on to explain how plastic the brain is, and how it is changing all the time…


    I see “neuroplasticity” as a single word used to summarize the diverse fields of study of neural plasticity that the author of that post goes on to describe.

    Sure, there are a lot of fields summed up in “neuroplasticity,” but does that mean that we get rid of the word?

    What about the word “play?” Or “art?”

    So I’m unclear about the argument…

    • 2. J.R. Atwood  |  June 11, 2010 at 8:47 am

      I understand your point, Josh, but I think the main takeaway is that science writers have an obligation to be more precise with their language when they report on brain science research.

      Neuroplasticity is a seductive word with a lot of cultural currency (and I’m guilty of throwing it around in conversation with friends) — but without an explanation for how, specifically, the brain changes under particular conditions, it is unhelpful or unnecessary — because the brain is always in the midst of physical transformation.

      By simply using the term neuroplasticity, we may unwittingly imply that neural change is a special or rare phenomenon. It’d be better, then, to make reference to the type of structural change (e.g., neurogenesis, synaptogenesis) that is significantly influenced by a particular intervention.

      • 3. Josh  |  June 11, 2010 at 9:34 am

        Thanks, JR. I see your point as well, but I’m still unclear about the nitpickingness of this. It all depends, I think, on your audience. To whom are you speaking and what are you trying to relay? Speaking to a lay audience in terms of the brain’s ability to “rewire” itself, I can use the term neuroplasticity and be able to move on.

        I also disagree somewhat that the brain is constantly undergoing plastic change. Neural pathways are laid down, and we tend to repeat those pathways. This is called “habit.” It is an effort, at base, at energy conservation. Imagine the energy costs of constantly being in a plastic state.

        So, while I agree that specificity is useful, it is only useful “in context.”

  • 4. J.R. Atwood  |  June 11, 2010 at 9:51 am

    Fantastic points, Josh! The notion of providing context is exactly what I identified as the key point in Vaughn’s article. And knowing one’s audience is crucial.

    I imagine, though, that reporters of science research would be more effective educators if they didn’t just say, for example, that exercise promotes neuroplasticity, and then “move on.” Rather, it would better to explain that, “Vigorous aerobic activity strengthens the connections that already exist among neurons in the brain and initiates the creation of new neurons, a process sometimes referred to as neurogenesis. This is just one example of the amazing plasticity of the human brain — everything we do stimulates the development of our brains, though some activities (such as exercise) may better promote desirable development than others.”

    I don’t think we lose anything by being more precise with our language. And if we aren’t careful — i.e., if we continue to apply the label “neuroplasticity” to every kind of neural change reported in the press no matter the cause for that change — then we may perpetuate a misunderstanding of how the brain develops.

    As always, great insight, Josh.

    • 5. Josh  |  June 11, 2010 at 5:15 pm

      I agree with you! More information is great! However, to what end, and for whom? More information just for information’s sake is questionable. And, more information to an uninterested audience only further alienates them. Tricky questions here…not easy.

      I still wonder why the fear of a general term…it applies in general settings. “Neuroplasticity” has meaning and usefulness in certain settings. If you’re being very specific, perhaps it is a bad choice.

      But if I were to say “we’re going to engage in an open, creative, dynamic, and exuberant learning process by exchanging this spherical object, only using our hands to propel it through the air…” have I done more of a service than saying “we’re going to play a game of catch?”

      If I go further and say to a client “this movement, when performed on one leg, increases neural demand to and from the nociceptors, golgi tendon organs, and spindle cells in the muscles of your limbs which expands your brain’s mapping of your body in space through synaptogenesis and possibly neurogenesis” have I done them a service, or done them a disservice?

      Could I simply have said “when you challenge your balance by performing exercises on one leg it improves proprioception – your body’s awareness of itself in space?”


      • 6. Jamie T  |  October 25, 2013 at 9:59 am

        I disagree that Neuroplasticity should be removed as a term… I also think that just mentioning it is useless because it will just confuse audience with lesser understandings of neurology.

        People should be educated as to what Neuroplasticity is so they know that it isn’t a random infrequent event… The fact that Neuroplasticity exists is a massive discovery that changed the view of hundreds of years of thinking and allowed the area of Neurology to vastly grow.

        Surely that makes it important?

  • 7. drkmbrown  |  August 1, 2010 at 11:37 am

    I just saw this, sorry I am coming in late. Hopefully you guys will still play with me.

    I would tend to agree with Josh here, mostly. My one distinction is that it depends on who is saying “neuroplasticity” and to whom. It is certainly true that many (dare I say most) aren’t really familiar with the concept of neuroplasticity. We need a term that is a catch all to bring people into the discussion in the first place.

    If I begin the discussion by discussing all of the positives, negatives, ins and outs of pruning; in what situations it carries an advantage, and in what situations it carries a disadvantage, etc., then the layperson’s eyes have glazed over. This would not necessarily be a practical first conversation. I first want the person to be aware of the fact that the brain can change through adulthood. It is certainly a fact that all of the subcategories of neuroplasticity are still neuroplasticity.

    Let’s not forget that the term was invented as a scientifically descriptive term. It has value in that.

    Sometimes we get too caught up in proving expertise by delving into every detail. On the flip side, there are those throwing around the term as if they have expertise when they don’t. When probed further – they got nuttin’. So, this is where the concept of “who” comes in. I say if you are not an expert in the field, still use the term, but freely admit that is about the extent of your knowledge. Direct people to read further, give them resources beyond your own knowledge.

    But to outlaw or shun a term simply because people use it too often or incorrectly, would be perseveration on a red herring.

    • 8. Josh  |  August 2, 2010 at 9:25 pm

      I agree with you, Kwame. The most important things, I think, are acknowledging the context of the communication, and the extent to which the person communicating has experience about the subject matter…

      And that’s just “good communication” in general…

    • 9. J.R. Atwood  |  August 4, 2010 at 10:51 pm

      Great to have you as a discussant here, Kwame! You and Josh have both made some strong points — let’s not throw the baby our with the bathwater. The brain is plastic, after all.

      This comment by OnCulture on the original Mind Hacks post is spot-on:

      In popular usage, I’m sure the term is often mis-used or applied imprecisely, but such is non-expert discussion of the brain. However, at its most abstract, the concept of neuroplasticity is often arrayed against that other commonplace abstract notion, that the brain is genetically ‘hard-wired’ in some way. So, the appeal to plasticity is a way of noting the often surprising fact that some predisposition formerly thought to be a fixed biological inheritance is actually mutable as a consequence of experience. Even at that grossest level of abstraction, the term is useful, and we needn’t go about wringing our hands over it.


  • 10. Susanmarie  |  August 29, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    Hello. Interesting commentary! From a language perspective, this whole discussion illustrates WHY the lexicon continues to grow at such an incredible pace (see Global Language Monitor), with ever more specificity of vocabulary in science, especially.

    Any hoo….I was fascinated by the video clip and am amazed at what the little girl can do with only half a brain. I have a friend who has a whole in her brain the size of her fist, due to a major stroke in childhood. I am going to send her the URL. Thanks, JR.

    • 11. Susanmarie  |  August 29, 2010 at 12:54 pm

      oops…make that “a hole in her brain” despite the “whole-brain” function. J


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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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