Neuroplasticity is a dirty word

Photo by Flickr user jamelah. Click for sourceThe latest refrain in popular science is that ‘your brain is plastic’, that experience has the potential to ‘rewire’ your brain, and that many previous mysteries in cognitive science can be explained by ‘neuroplasticity’. What they don’t tell you is that these phrases are virtually meaningless.

Neuroplasticity sounds very technical, but there is no accepted scientific definition for the term and, in its broad sense, it means nothing more than ‘something in the brain has changed’. As your brain is always changing the term is empty on its own.

This is from the introduction to the influential scientific book Toward a Theory of Neuroplasticity:

Given the central important of neuroplasticity, an outsider would be forgiven for assuming that it was a well defined and that a basic and universal framework served to direct current and future hypotheses and experimentation. Sadly, however, this is not the case. While many neuroscientists use the word neuroplasticity as an umbrella term it means different things to different researchers in different subfields… In brief, a mutually agreed upon framework does not appear to exist.

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.

As every change in the brain can be referred to as ‘neuroplasticity’ you need to look out for what is actually meant. As we are constantly learning more about the brain, the possible list is endless, but here are some of the most common processes associated with the term:

Structural changes in the brain

Synaptic plasticity refers to changes in the strength of connections between synapses, the chemical or electrical connection points between brain cells. Synaptic plasticity is an umbrella term in itself, and means nothing except something has changed at the synapse, but may include many specific processes such as long-term potentiation (LTP) or depression (LTD), changes in the number of receptors for specific neurotransmitters, and changes in which proteins are expressed inside the cell, among many others known and unknown. As a rule of thumb, nothing changes in the brain without changes in the synapses.

Synaptogenesis and synaptic pruning refers to the creation and removal of whole synapses or groups of synapses which build or destroy connection between neurons.

Neuronal migration is the process where neurons extend from their ‘place of birth’ to connect to far reaching areas across the brain.

Neurogenesis is the creation of new neurons. It largely occurs in the developing brain although over the last decade or so we’ve realised that limited neurogenesis occurs in the adult brain.

Neural cell death is literally where neurons die. This can happen through damage, over-excitation or disease, but also as a natural ‘programmed’ process including apoptosis. When this programmed cell death fails, it can sometimes lead to cancer.

Other forms of ‘neuroplasticity’ may be inferred from structural changes in the brain that do not involve direct measurement of individual neurons.

These usually come from brain scans and can involve changes in the density of white matter or grey matter on structural MRI scans, or to how densely radioactively labelled markers bind to specific receptors in parts of the brain.

Functional reorganisation – changes in how tasks are organised in the brain

As we develop, brain areas becomes specialised for specific tasks and ways of making sense of the world. For example, the very back of your brain is labelled the visual cortex, because it deals with sight.

If experience changes dramatically or parts of the brain are damaged, areas previously specialised for a certain function can ‘take on’ some of the work of other areas, without necessarily detectably changing in structure. For example, the ‘visual cortex’ in blind people can be used to perceive touch.

Functional reorganisation is often inferred without directly measuring the brain. For example, immediately after brain injury, someone might not be able to speak because the areas previously used for language are damaged. However, speech may be regained or it might improve, depending on the extent of damage, as the brain has a limited ability to reorganise the share of work to undamaged areas.

Learning or habit

This is the loosest and most problematic use of ‘neuroplasticity’. By definition if we learn something, acquire a habit or tendency, good or bad, something has changed in the brain. Without specifying what the brain is doing, we know nothing more.


UPDATE: You might also be interested in a subsequent post that tackles the myths that neuroplasticity is a new idea and, until quite recently, we thought the brain was ‘fixed’.

37 thoughts on “Neuroplasticity is a dirty word”

  1. Great job laying out the specific structural changes hiding under that umbrella term. I have always assumed the word was mostly used to denote synaptic plasticity related in some way to specific events or stimuli. Thanks for the reminder that neuroplasticity can be used to denote about ten other very general things as well.

  2. Well done, Tyler. Would you consider adding to Wikipedia on the many linked pages you include?
    “everything we experience ‘rewires the brain'”
    Especially vulnerable to “a particular experience must be taken seriously because it ‘rewires the brain’ despite the fact that everything we experience ‘rewires the brain'” are parents who have not been offered curative treatment for brain damage to their young children. Many are spending fortunes on HBOT, stem cell infusions in other countries and ‘listening’ programs.

    1. If in fact what the article says is true, I wouldn’t recommend posting it on Wikipedia since Wikipedia is not a reliable source of information. So much so that college students are not allowed to use Wikipedia for any level of research. The site is editable, which makes it vulnerable to false or fabricated information.

      1. Greg, that is a common myth.

        Just because an entry is editable, does not mean it is automatically unreliable.

        Furthermore, I believe teachers and professors that prohibit the use of Wikipedia for “any level of research” are doing a great disservice to their students. Critical thinking is a learning process that never ends. We all, and especially students, need to continually develop our critical thinking skills. Wikipedia gives us a great opportunity to practice, while at the same time providing very accessible information including sources for further investigation.

        A well-written Wikipedia entry is properly sourced. We can’t condemn Wikipedia as a whole, because a small minority entries are poorly written.

  3. Vaughn my applause as well for your cogent précis, especially as it highlights that challenge for scientists in speaking to the general public, not the least of which is comminicating core values for the scientific community: case in point: Society for Neuroscience core concepts.
    A thought from the art/sci p.o.v. on operational terms:
    In Western Civ. , the term “plastic” has enjoyed much use since Renaissance artists sought to vivify body representations with “life” drawing.
    In my own research of art/Sci metaphors, I’ve found the term sticky well describes a feature found at the level of molecular form of synaptic connection and of plastic itself. (I will be speaking on this at the upcoming Humanity + Summit at Harvard U.
    Seems the metaphorical aspect of discursive language is causing the rukus over meaning. Nothing new when it comes to homing elegant, “operational” definitions, d’accord?
    A final thought: As far as the popular press on the subject: the idea neuroplasticity and brain development is giving edge to Olympic athletes, helping to train new mothers in prenatal care, hope to 100s if not 1000s of TBI survivors and new
    learning opportunities for seniors whose mental health
    otherwise remains condemned by scientific presumptons
    of previous centuries.
    Those of us working to generate energized, intellectually informed conversation on all things Neuro have our work cut
    out for us.
    You’ve raised the high bar! Xie xie ni!
    Dr G
    The George Greenstein Institute, Inc.

  4. Thank you so much for not only showing us that the word neuroplasticity as currently used is a meaningless term, but also for spelling out some very specific types of changes in the brain.

  5. 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.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Neuroplasticity is a term that is important for the non-scientific community to understand in the sense that the brain is dynamic and not stagnant. Sometimes in the scientific world we can get so specific we throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to say.

    2. I appreciated more this time than most the comments that followed the article than the article. And especially this one. The term is never going to be more than a generality in public usage for the simple fact that most people are not educated about synaptic issues and such unless it is their field. In their defense, they have to use something; this word is good enough until we come up with something else. I object to anyone being told “it is too late for you–you are too old….” which is the lie that this term has crossed and therefore needs to addressed. I teach music every day to older adults told for years “you can’t” or “you are too old” or “you’ve had a stroke-that hand will never work again”. There is definitely more adaptability and possibility in neurological function than we have been told in the past. I see it every day and in the context that I believe this word is mostly used. Is it completely accurate? Does it speak of biological change or environmental or both, etc., etc. Maybe and maybe not. Every age lives in it’s arrogance (sic)of being on the greatest Edge of Knowledge Ever and we are no less so. The word itself is a prelude to at least a desire for more understanding if not a change in the winds of our current thinking which certainly needs something user-friendly.
      We are in our infancy in understanding this amazing organ, what it does, can or can’t do and it’s great adaptability in the face of injury or worse, misuse! To find out it possesses–thru slow and tedious research–an ‘elasticity’ of sorts that makes changing and growing and healing more possible that we once thought is a very wonderful thing, indeed. So we have a term–neuroplasticity–to get the conversation going. All the better. ‘Snarking’ at the choice (new word for the day!!) doesn’t make one sound more advanced or wise. (Just more, well, snark-y:)t Speak something helpful into the abyss of ignorance that the rest of us are attempting to fill with a better choice and see where it goes. It just makes you sound cynical and we’ve got that in spades without finding more of it on Wiki.
      Is anyone’s brain out there feeling particularly neuroplastic-y today? Bravo for you then!!

  6. Vaughan’s comments are right on and well expressed as always. We do see people going overboard with this term.
    Still, OnCulture raises a critical point. This wonderful post also sidesteps the fact that the very idea of changes to the brain truly *was* revolutionary.
    It is no exaggeration to say that the framework was established in line with Ramon y Cajal’s “nerve paths are something fixed, ended, immutable.” Parents with children with disabilities or vegetative states were told in no uncertain terms that their child’s brain was simply wired wrong and they should be warehoused; with treatment being a silly thing to consider.
    This is not a trivial point of word usage, the framework shift had very real social consequences. We now consider it at least reasonable to consider that the brain can compensate for problems.
    Perhaps now the cogniscenti are taking this so much for granted that they forget how hard it was to actually make this point accepted!
    Thanks for keeping up a wonderful, high quality blog, Vaughan, always educational and thought provoking!

  7. i don’t think the problem is with the word so much as how it is used. if the general population is using the word to mean the brain is much more plastic than once thought, then fine. if specialists, however, are using the word to discuss precise matters then the word is not at fault. to err is human’s purview.

  8. There seems to be no difference between what you have said and other books and readings. The main emphasis has been to change the public’s perception and general historical material, that the brain is a fixed entity and once damaged is irretrievably impaired. As with other comments the problems are sometimes ones of semantics rather than scientific accuracy. However your comments are valid, if only to balance the public’s view of what is deemed neuroplasticity

  9. Hi Peter, one difficulty is that the supposedly historical idea about neuroplasticity is also largely a myth as I discuss in a subsequent post ‘Neuroplasticity is not a new discovery’.

    1. It may not be a new discovery, but that does not mean that coining a term to simplify its understanding is somehow improper.

      As to the assertion that historical idea about brain being “fixed” is a myth, let me tell you about a personal experience. A very close family member suffered a stroke. Her son, a successful medical doctor, explained that because part of her brain was damaged, functions that reside in that part would never be regained. You may be right that this notion is really a myth, but it was a widely held belief and the publicity surrounding the term “neuroplasticity” has done well to counter it.

  10. You have criticized the use of this term on the basis that “every thing we do rewires the brain”, and therefore the term is meaningless.

    The origin of this term was to contrast it with previously held notion that different parts of brain are hardwired to perform certain functions only. If a certain part of brain is damaged, functions associated with that part would never be regained. This term refutes that notion and explains that brain is capable of reassigning those functions.

  11. I Goolgled this term because my audiologist keeps using it in an attempt to get me to stop using a sleep aid. I have suffered from raging tinnitus for years and finally contacted an ottoneurologist a year ago in hopes of getting some relief. He sent me to the audiologist and I now wear special hearing aids for this affliction. I’m supposed to listen to special music for 40 mintues twice a day and use the special settings on the hearings aids to distract my brain from the noise in my head. I use a cheap white noise machine at night. Because of my brain’s “neuroplasticity”, I’m supposed to be training my brain not to pay attention to this loud noise even without a sleep aid. Guess what? It doesn’t work.

  12. Great article. The term seems to be overused. It seems to me that the purpose at this point is to counter the notion that our brain is ‘hardwired’. Thanks for pointing out the different structural changes in the brain. It helps flesh out what is possibly going on. I am sure that in 20 years we will have a better handle on it and a better vocabulary to go with the new research.

  13. Thanks to Vaughn for the clear differentiations and to Iqbal, OnCulture and others making the point of the value of the term out here in LaypersonsLand.

    The other valuable change that the popularisation of the term has initiated is to support the spread of the notion that mental states are “real” and can not be dismissed as being “just” in the mind.

    While mind/brain is a fascinating and probably un-unravellable intervweaving of meanings, it is radically new in some culturally influential circles to have the “mental” reflected so graphically in the “physical”.

    Echoing Ross, I see these popular imprecisions as a stumbling first stage in the incorporation of this new take on mind/body into the wider, non-specialist culture. We still don’t have an accurate popular language around IT; “neo-neuro-speak” has a lonnngggg way to go.

  14. “everything we experience ‘rewires the brain’” – It is wonderful that this is such an evidence for you, it wasn’t 15 years ago. Nature versus nurture was still a hot debate and the idea that experience could alter the structure of your brain was science fiction for most people. Research takes a while to reach people who aren’t directly involved, even doctors. Try asking to a few physicians, generalists, pediatricians, you will see that things like adult neurogenesis is still an unknown fact for many practicing doctors!
    Like every term that is used and abused there is the bad (people who use it without knowing what they are talking about) and there is the great (allowing people who don’t spend all their time reading about science benefit from the latest scientific discoveries)

  15. Neuroplasticity is a real and detectable neurologinal process which vaughanbell succeeds in misrepresenting. Microelectrodes and fMRIs have been used to detect functional changes in experimental animals and humans, respectively.

    The history and discovery of neuroplasticily is detailed in Norman Doidge’s 2007 book “The Brain That Changes Itself”. I am not surprised that vaughanbell did not mention it. It contradicts everything he concluded about neuroplasticity.

    Neuroplasticity is functional and structural reorganization at the neuronal level, which includes synaptic plasticity, synaptogenesis, neuronal migration and neurogenesis.

    David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel won the 1981 Nobel prize in Physiology and Medicine for their work on the developement of the visual cortex. Initially, they ‘”firmly believed that once cortical connections were established in their mature form, they stayed in place permanently.” Wiesel now accepts adult plasticity and has gracefully acknowledged in print that for a long time he was wrong …” (Doidge, pl 61-2).

    Like many scientific discoveries, it has and will be misunderstood and mis-used, but that does not make it wrong.

    Keep an open mind and learn, it will help your brain stay plastic which, as you age, keeps life interesting and may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

  16. Dear Doug, you seem to have fundamentally misunderstood the point of the post. At no point do I say that the brain does not change – in fact, the article outlines the various ways that it does change.

    The point is that neuroplasticity has become a new buzzword for what neuroscience has always revealed – that the brain adapts to new situations. Doidge is a prime example of this, as he claims neuroplasticity is an exciting new discovery while simultaneously discussing how it was acknowledged as far back as Broca’s work on aphasia.

    1. Although research supporting neuroplasticity has been around for some time, the practical application of that knowledge is a major area of growth right now, and very exciting. Who cares if “neuroplasticity” is an umbrella term? It describes a particular approach to therapy in a number of fields and the new methods are getting better results than the old in areas of post traumatic stress syndrome, learning disabilities and stroke rehabilitation, to name a few. It was useful to me, to read your post and understand how the term breaks down but I don’t understand what your beef with the word might be. Should we stop using all umbrella terms because they aren’t specific enough?

  17. Hello,
    Can you please state the sources of the definitions you wrote? I find this imformation very useful but I need the references…

  18. While I agree with what you posted, and that neuroplasticity is becoming a buzz word I think you also underestimate what the term neuroplasticity actually means to the field of neuroscience.

    I am not a neuroscientist, or a psychologist. I’m a teacher, which is a far cry from both, but I study this topic often as it applies to children as well as the adults I train. What neuroplasticity ultimately is saying is that not only can environmental factors influence brain structure and organization but that the mind itself can also do the same without any outside factor. In some ways, yes neuroplasticity is simply a big word for “learning.” But it’s a word that has broken down the barrier that the brain doesn’t change in structure or organization.

    It does change, and that change is more than simply “learning.” Learning is the process by which neuroplasticity occurs. The same can be said for the idea that simply being mindful of your thinking alters how the brain is wired and reacts to certain stimuli. You can give someone a pill for OCD, but it does not change the behavior of the brain. It simply counteracts the overactivity in certain areas by affecting neurotransmitters. But if a person can be aware of their thoughts, and “learn” to respond appropriately the over activity in brain areas that cause OCD can be rewired and other areas of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex grow in response to the mindfulness of the overactive cingulate. Yes, this is also “learning” but once the learning is complete the brain is different.

  19. i am just a stroke victim with spasticity who can’t get a straight answer from any of my doctors. it was my physical therapist who told me why my hamstring was suddenly “tight or tightening” so much. i need to know what therapies, exercises, i can do to attack this condition. does spasticity go away? why didn’t this happen when i had the first two strokes in nov. 2011? after the first two i walked out of the hospital on my own, it was after the third that this developed. WILL SOMEONE PLEASE HELP ME! or 646-330-1404 will weight training reduce or eliminate it? (i was a bodybuilder) i want to go back to the gym. i want to get well or as well as i can. i have been out of work 7 months just started back last week. i am still having trouble with stairs

    1. Tod, years ago while attending a community college I did volunteer work helping a stroke victim. What was being done on a daily basis was four volunteers were moving Dannys limbs in a prearranged pattern. Danny had no ability to move his limbs on his own. The thinking was that by moving his limbs for him his brain would relearn how to move his limbs. The thought at the time was not to rebuild the damaged part of the brain but to train other areas of the brain to take over these functions. I don’t know if this will help you in your situation, but I thought that I would tell you about it in case you or your therapist was unaware of this kind of work.

  20. Thanks for the interesting article! However, I believe you are being too harsh about who uses the word “neuroplasticity” and when it is used. Perhaps as a scholar, yes, it is too general and was already been proven a long time ago. But, I am a college student who has just been introduced to what it really means and how it applies to stroke victims, people with learning disabilities etc. So, please try to keep in mind that not everyone who reads your posts is a professor studying in this field.

    Also, the word is so general because there is still so much to learn from this phenomena. Neuroplasticity is still relevant today, regardless of how long ago it was discovered. I mean, people are still re-translating and analyzing Homer, Vergil and Sophocles despite how many millions of times their works have been translated since they were written so long ago. Overall though , I thank you for your enlightening post.

  21. Thank you for this article. You seem to lay out a number of brain functions quite well. I am a bit concerned about the grammar though.
    As a visual artist who focuses on op art I find neuroplasticity to be an exciting field to understanding ourselves. I start with the basic premise that everything affects everything. Therefore if the brain is in a constant state of change that change is related to what we experience. What I attempt to do with my art is to control in certain ways what the viewer is experiencing, therefore affecting their neural wiring in a number of ways.
    In this sense I take some umbrage with your statement that we would be just as well off if we didn’t have the word.
    I find that understanding certain processes of my brain at a technical level greatly assists me in how I experience my life. I fully accept that at some level certain individuals in a society always had some perception of this. In fact the Philosophical Implications attached to this are well known and highly regarded.

  22. Quote Vaughanbell: “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.”

    Could you give us some examples where popular culture uses the word “neuroplasticity” just to seem more scientific?

  23. Although I agree that a lot of people use terminology like this to make themselves sound more intelligent or to give their argument more credibility I don’t believe that we should throw out the word because of its misuse. If we started to do that then our language would be very sparse indeed. There are many situations where usage of this term is appropriate and valuable. Yes it is a generalization as you have pointed out, but that is not a bad thing in and of itself.

  24. I think what’s missing in this article is the basic understanding of differing philosophies regarding the nature of consciousness – brain state or mind state, how “mind state” or “free-will” or if there is “free-will” at all, might effect brain state. For instance, comparing Cartesian materialism with Epiphenominalism. This point has been entirely overlooked. : (

  25. Well, with all the nonsensical jargon that pours form here and there in the world of verbal and literary correctness and exactitude…..I hide quite happily under my neuroplasticity umbrella.

  26. Dr. Bell,

    I’m a psychology undergraduate doing research on neuroplasticity and, as you might expect, this is how I came across your article. As a student, I clearly have many gaps in my area of learning, but I’d like to highlight some issues that, even at the undergraduate levee, it seems you’ve overlooked in your blog.

    Firstly, it seems you ignore the history of theoretical developments in psychology and philosophy of mind. The “meaning” of the claim that the brain can change its structure is partly a historical one; namely, that we did not always believe the brain could change its structure on a significant level in response to stimuli. This would have been seen as hogwash even a single generation of researchers ago in terms of psychological and neurological research. Saying that “something has changed in the brain” is not a meaningless assertion, especially if you accept the common wisdom of brain scientists 50 years ago that brain structure was set for life. It is not “by definition” the same thing as saying that learning has taken place, unless one assumes what such research demonstrates beforehand (more on that later). It seems, from my perspective, you’ve kick over the ladder but brag about how high you’ve climbed.

    Secondly, you argue that there is no set definition of neuroplasticity, yet seem to imply one yourself. It can simply refer to the ability of the brain to change its structure in response to stimuli. What’s wrong with this definition? It’s an empirical observation that we’ve yet to determine the underlying mechanisms for. That hardly seems meaningless. There are still many exciting research questions to be answered in terms of just how the brain changes its structure. While many journalists and outsiders will surely jump the gun and assume it simply refers to “learning,” how does this negate the value of the term in science? Misuse of science happens all the time, from everything to the “God particle” to lasers to evolution; it is a cultural problem, but not a scientific one, and your article seems to conflate the two.

    Lastly, the results of the neuroplasticity research program would only be unsurprising to one who was dead-convinced of type-type identity of mind and brain; yet such certainty is not warranted even now, let alone in the past. Take, for instance, your example of gray/white matter ratios changing in response to stimulation. Could a psychologist have known (and I mean really known) that long-term stimulation results in these changes from an a priori or observational standpoint without the relevant brain research? As you mention in regard to brain injury patients, such a change could have been inferred, but not demonstrated. It could have also been assumed that learning took place in some dualistic Cartesian fashion, or that it took place under some non-reductionist, functionalist, information-processing fashion that did not involve significant changes in brain structure. This research flies in the face of such assumptions, and supports the identity theory of mind/brain. Even if you had been a identity theorist before such research came to light, you could not have demonstrated your belief empirically without hard evidence that the physical structure of the brain changes.

    Please, if you care to, tell me how a researcher fifty, thirty or even twenty years ago would have had access to the knowledge that the brain changes structure in response to stimulation by anything other than inference from an a priori assumption of physicalism. If you cannot, you grant that neuroplasticity is clearly a meaningful term and research program.

    With respect,


    1. Additionally, I failed to mention that even within an identity view of mind/brain functions, there is an alternative explanation to neuroplasticity: many researchers have posited that, rather than growing new cells, the brain simply contains a number of already established alternative pathways ready to be employed in the case of damage. Without research demonstrating neuroplasticity in a number of areas, including learning, this could also easily have sufficed as an explanation for the brain’s changes in structure in response to damage.


  27. Its funny how any term that may potentially be empowering to individuals in their own control of their mind, becomes a dirty word according to science as you debunkers understand it.

    Neuro-plasticity is not just some vague term mysticists have cooked up. It is based on observable phenomena and observed phenomena, and it is there to explain very specific empirical facts.

    It would be to the loss of empirical science to ignore this phenomena.

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