You keep using this word ‘neuroplasticity’. I do not think it means what you think it means.


So, I wanted to write a post about how the word ‘neuroplasticity’ is  the current neuro-bullshitter’s favourite big sciencey-sounding word to throw around these days. I was going to explain how it was actually such a broad umbrella term as to be pretty meaningless, and talk about some things like LTP and synaptogenesis in the hippocampus which (in contrast) are precise, well-defined terms, and fascinating processes, and how your brain is changing in a ‘plastic’ manner even as you read these words. It was really going to be a great post.

Unfortunately (as so often seems to happen), it turns out that the mighty Vaughan Bell beat me to it by a scant three years with this typically outstanding post on So. I guess you should all just go and read that instead, and I’ll have to be content with my standard operating procedure and take the piss out of some quacks instead.

The ‘About the Science’ section of the Brain Balance Centers main website has some awesomely meaningless language, that manages to work in some other big sciencey-sounding word too:

“It was once thought that the brain was static, unable to grow or change. But extensive research and in depth study of epigenetics has shown that it’s remarkably adaptable, able to create new neural pathways in response to stimulus in the environment, a branch of science called neuroplasticity.”

Ooh – epigenetics, and neural pathways. Fans of meaningless brain cartoons should definitely check out that site too, their disconnected vs. connected diagram is fabulous.

The Lumosity website (a brain-training company) has some pretty choice language too:

“But when neuroplasticity’s potential is thoughtfully and methodically explored, this physical reorganization can make your brain faster and more efficient at performing all manner of tasks.”

There are lots of other examples I could paste in here. I spend a fair amount of time looking at these companies’ sites and I’ve come to the conclusion that any mention of the word ‘neuroplasticity’ is basically a massive red-flag. People are very fond of using it to promote these things, but mostly their arguments boil down to “Because: neuroplasticity!”, which as Vaughan explained so eloquently, doesn’t mean anything at all without a whole additional layer of explanation, refinement and qualification.

So – a top tip, when you see the word ‘neuroplasticity’ think ‘bollocks’ instead.  99% of the time you’ll be absolutely dead-on.

21 responses to “You keep using this word ‘neuroplasticity’. I do not think it means what you think it means.

  1. Epigenetics…frustrating that it has also become a hallmark of quackery. A complex, fascinating and revealing area of research reduced to ‘Get one with nature because diet and environment are now the biggest controllers of your genes’.

  2. Another big word is “psychoneuroimmunology” which also seems to be seeping in to the world of woo. The Woos seem to think that it proves mind over matter and other New Thought nonsense. Here’s an example, see item 7 on the list.

  3. Great post NB. As one of those %1 of folks doing actual systems/human level neuroplasticity research, I just want to point out a few examples of ‘real’ vs hype neuroplasticity stuff.

    1. Most of the new predictive coding revolution is fundamentally about developing a computational model of neuroplasticity – the hypothesis here is that from neurons to modules to systems and beyond the brain is updating it’s beliefs about the world through synaptic plasticity mechanisms. From this perspective the function of the brain is literally to learn about the world, and neural plasticity is itself the central computational mechanism by which this is accomplished.


    Another one of my favourite examples comes from the study of training-independent learning. This is an interesting example precisely because new developments from the molecular study of plasticity (e.g. synaptic plasticity, LTD, LTP) are being applied with great success to human behaviour through optimised stimulation protocols.

    With human stuff as always it can be tricky. I would say Bavalier’s work on videogames falls into the ‘real’ category but much of the reporting around it falls into the hype category. Sadly the ratio is even worse for meditation research, where the researchers themselves tend to rely on a bit of this kind of hype to drive interest to their work. Obviously most of the ‘real’ neuroplasticity research is on the computational or molecular level, but we can include most of the psychology of memory and learning under the label and there is plenty of good stuff there.

    One of my favourite punching bags for academic plasticity hype:

    So, lots of great research. Neuroplasticity is a central arena of research for neuroscience (JNeuro has a category just for NP). The real tragedy is that it’s been so overhyped in the popular media that the original insight in papers like the infamous Maguire et al Taxi Driver studies has been totally lost.

    • Thanks Micah! Of course, I didn’t mean to suggest that there’s not some very serious and interesting work going on that could broadly be described as in the ‘neuroplasticity’ area. Thanks for pointing some out and bringing a bit of positivity to these pages for once! ;o)

  4. The most amusing aspect of this is that it would be pretty easy to build a computer that could rewire itself in ways that are similar to what the brain does, but nobody finds that particularly interesting. The reason people find it interesting for the brain is that they take neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change itself) as evidence for dualism.

  5. Reblogged this on The Andrade Archive and commented:
    Unfortunately, for most amatuer science lovers, we get information from people in the mainstream media who don’t know what they’re actually talking about.

  6. I think that a lot of this hype stems from the adult neurogenesis discoveries of the late 90s, early 2000s; MindHacks suggests something similar. It seems like a lot of people think “more is better” because more neurons or more “flexibility” in existing neurons is always better, although computationally this extra flexibility is often bad. Unfortunately, we don’t really have good computational models to argue what neurogenesis does from an information processing point of view. Although having good computational models or theoretical understanding is unlikely to do anything to hype.

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  8. You boys need to get girlfriends and chill a bit. An awful lot of testosterone fuelled frustration here 🙂

  9. I’m a counsellor too my darling – try not to be so defensive or conceited 🙂

  10. You think you are a scientist huh? I was under the impression scientists were open to discovery? Made no assumptions? Tried not to also bias into their thinking? You think because you are smart you know everything ? Then you are in the wrong profession. There are many daft and misguided folk out their – but there are equally many who do actually help people. Before you slag of reflexology use your so called knowledge to research the impact of interpersonal touch – maybe c-tactile fibers – Pacinian corpuscles (a particular favourite of mine) – maybe the difference between affiliative touch and perceptual touch – the limbic system – maybe the cingulate gyrus – and let’s not forget the somatosensory homunculus. Conceited little boy.

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  12. Neuroplasticity
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    “Neural plasticity” redirects here. For the journal, see Neural Plasticity (journal).
    For the 2014 album by the band Cold Specks, see Neuroplasticity (Cold Specks album)

    Contrary to conventional thought as expressed in this diagram, brain functions are not confined to certain fixed locations.
    Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, is an umbrella term that encompasses both synaptic plasticity and non-synaptic plasticity—it refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behavior, environment, neural processes, thinking, emotions, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury.[1] Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how – and in which ways – the brain changes throughout life.[2]

    Neuroplasticity occurs on a variety of levels, ranging from cellular changes due to learning, to large-scale changes involved in cortical remapping in response to injury. The role of neuroplasticity is widely recognized in healthy development, learning, memory, and recovery from brain damage. During most of the 20th century, the consensus among neuroscientists was that brain structure is relatively immutable after a critical period during early childhood. This belief has been challenged by findings revealing that many aspects of the brain remain plastic even into adulthood.[3]

    Hubel and Wiesel had demonstrated that ocular dominance columns in the lowest neocortical visual area, V1, were largely immutable after the critical period in development.[4] Critical periods also were studied with respect to language; the resulting data suggested that sensory pathways were fixed after the critical period. However, studies determined that environmental changes could alter behavior and cognition by modifying connections between existing neurons and via neurogenesis in the hippocampus and other parts of the brain, including the cerebellum.[5]

    Decades of research[6] have now shown that substantial changes occur in the lowest neocortical processing areas, and that these changes can profoundly alter the pattern of neuronal activation in response to experience. Neuroscientific research indicates that experience can actually change both the brain’s physical structure (anatomy) and functional organization (physiology). Neuroscientists are currently engaged in a reconciliation of critical period studies demonstrating the immutability of the brain after development with the more recent research showing how the brain can, and does, change in response to hitherto unsuspected stimuli.[7][8]

    So please note, [1] Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how – and in which ways – the brain changes throughout life.[2]
    This means that now we might look into ways to actually change the brain, instead of doping America up with drugs that simply do nothing but mask the true problem in the brain and cause major side effects. This is the way of the future, like it or NOT!

    • Just to clarify Linda. Is your reply supporting or criticising the article?

    • Ah! I see now! You’ve pasted in part of an article from Wikipedia! This changes EVERYTHING.*

      Did you actually read what I wrote? I would never dream of saying that neuroplasticity doesn’t exist. My point was that the word ‘neuroplasticity’ is an imprecise umbrella term for a number of different processes, many of which are still probably unknown. To say that the brain changes throughout life is trivially true – that’s what brains do. Yours is changing right now, as you read these words. You might as well call the heart beating ‘cardioplasticity’.

      You can’t just throw around words like ‘neuroplasticity’ without saying exactly what you mean. For instance, it would be nice to see (for once) a statement like ‘Treatment X causes increased synaptogenesis in the CA3 field of the hippocampus’. That would be a nice, testable statement. You can’t just say ‘Treatment X works because: Neuroplasticity!’ because it could mean anything, and therefore means nothing.

      *No, it doesn’t.

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