Beware the neuroplasticity hype

Your brain is rewiring itself all the time, but it’s no panacea

If you were to spend two hours a day playing the piano for five days in a row your brain would change in a predictable, physical way. Scientists have shown that this kind of practice causes a measurable expansion in the part of your motor cortex that controls finger movements. More remarkably, if you spent the same amount of time thinking about playing, but never touched a key, then your brain would exhibit almost identical changes.

This ability of the brain, to change itself structurally in response to what we do and what we think, has come to be known as neuroplasticity. Whilst neuroplasticity is by no means a new discovery, a series of important findings over the last two decades have thrust it into the limelight. It seems that the adult brain is much more malleable than many brain scientists had long believed.

This is an important message and perhaps even a liberating one. A richer understanding of neuroplasticity and how to promote and control it promises the possibility of a world where people can recover from physical and emotional damage to their brains, and maybe even tune up or ‘train’ their brains to allow greater productivity, intelligence or self-actualization. But as the hard science has trickled into the popular consciousness, some of the essential details of neuroplasticity have been eroded and others misleadingly warped. Here, I want to unpack two common misconceptions about neuroplasticity and hopefully leave you with a more nuanced and useful way of thinking about how it might actually affect your life.

First up is the commonly held view that if something we do, ingest or think causes a physical change in our brains, then it is somehow important and worthy of our attention.

In fact, our brains are changing all the time. Anything we do that leaves a lasting impression on our mental faculties: every fact learnt, skill acquired or mind-set shifted; causes a physical change in your brain. If the brain didn’t change, its function wouldn’t budge.

So in thinking about neuroplasticity, the key question is not “has the brain changed?”, for it most likely has. Much more interesting is finding out what sort of changes have occurred, how were they induced, and what are the consequences.

Here things get a bit more slippery. As explained so clearly by Vaughan Bell, as scientific as it sounds, the word neuroplasticity actually has little real meaning to a neuroscientist. It is an umbrella term for any structural change to the brain. These changes range from minute alterations to the strength of the connection between two neurons, to the birth of new neurons, to wholescale re-organisation of brain regions, involving millions of neurons. As a rule of thumb, the more dramatic the structural change, the more extraordinary the event causing the change must be — whether that’s a dramatic head injury or multiple hours spent mastering Mandarin through immersion- and the more profound the consequences. Changes in the brain, per se, that is neuroplasticity, are not newsworthy on their own.

The second misconception ripe for scrutiny is the idea, seized upon by the self-help community, that with neuroplasticity we can change any aspect of our imperfect brains.

The reality is that most self-induced and lasting changes to brain function are hard-won, unpredictable and almost always limited in their scope. Yes, neuroplasticity can occur, but very many, and perhaps even most, aspects of brain function are deeply resistant to change. What is more, this is usually a very good thing.

Sure, if our brains were infinitely plastic, then we’d never have to worry about brain injuries again and we really could make ourselves into exactly the kind of person we think we want to be. But there is an inescapable flip-side to such extreme malleability. Any change we do make would be apt to unravel as soon as our circumstances change. We’d be tossed around on the sea of experience like a lifeboat in a storm, constantly re-inventing ourselves. Our brains’ robustness insulates crucial mental processes from being derailed by external influences; it also gives us the ability to form memories and emotional responses that are so crucial for our sense of self, and for this sense to have some continuity through our lives.

This isn’t to say that change isn’t possible. It is. And often more dramatic than you might imagine. For example, blind people can learn to navigate through their worlds by echo-location by re-allocating of large tracts of the visual brain to augment hearing, whilst stroke victims can sometime regain motility in completely paralysed limbs through intensive physiotherapy that forces them to use the affected arm by constraining the mobile one. However, in every case such extensive changes to the brain’s structure and function require immense dedication and patience. Such a huge input of time and energy involve trade-offs, both within your brain and in your lifestyle. There is no such thing as “spare” brain capacity, so augmenting one aspect of brain function will be at the expense of another. The hours you spend brain-training to nudge your IQ up a point or two, are time not learning to play the piano, mastering a new language or, for that matter, talking to the people around you.

Its serves to pay attention to the details of research into neuroplasticity, and not just extrapolate vaguely about “rewiring” and its potential applications. We must learn as much as we can about the conditions that foster neuroplastic change, and try to apply this to helping people live more fulfilling lives and to recover from neurological damage and dysfunction. But neuroplasticity is no cure-all and there are definitely no quick fixes.