Thinking Beyond the Brain: Why Neuroplasticity is Overhyped

Lists of exercises to rewire your brain, books about the “plastic” brain… Neuroplasticity has been touted as a magical capability anyone can harness for success.

As with many neuroscience-based concepts that made it into mainstream media, the hype starts from a fact: it is true that the adult brain is not hard-wired with fixed neuronal circuits. But many how-to guides take the idea much further than most scientists would be comfortable with.

So, where does the boundary lie between neuroscience and neurobabble? What exactly is neuroplasticity, and can it be capitalized on in any practical way? And is there a more holistic way to explain learning, habit formation, and human behavior in general?

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A primer on neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity, short for neural plasticity, is the ability of the nervous system to reorganize its structure, function and connections. These changes can be small, such as a single neuron pathway making a new connection. Or they can be quite big, like when entire cortical areas are remapped following an amputation — which can lead to something called “phantom limb pain”, where amputees feel like their amputated extremity is still there.

There are two main types of neuroplasticity:

  • Structural plasticity. These are changes to the structure of the brain, including the creation and destruction of connections between neurons, or changes in the strength of these connections. Structural plasticity can also refer to other anatomical alterations, for example changes in the density of grey matter. It’s often studied using a variety of brain imaging techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
  • Functional plasticity. This type of neuroplasticity refers to changes in how tasks are organized in the brain, and is most easily observed when parts of the brain are damaged, and other areas then “take over” the task. For instance, the area that normally fills the role of the visual cortex in sighted people can used to perceive touch in blind people.

Contrary to a common misconception, the discovery of neuroplasticity is not new, with research papers on this phenomenon dating as far back as the 1800’s. However, the advent of neuroimaging techniques may have fueled the current hype.

The main source of confusion is the loose definition of neuroplasticity used in the media, where it has become synonymous with learning new skills, acquiring new habits, or changing one’s behavior. By that account, any experience can be linked to neuroplasticity.

As British neuropsychologist Vaughan Bell puts it: “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.”

And yet, we keep on seeing the word “neuroplasticity” pop up in articles about self-development, psychology, and human behavior in general. So, where does the problem come from? It boils down to how common it has become to use neuroscience to explain things that can be explained by other areas of research — a tendency called neuroessentialism.

The problem with neuroessentialism

In the words of William Schultz from Argosy University: “Neuroessentialism is the view that the definitive way of explaining human psychological experience is by reference to the brain and its activity.”

Neuroessentialist thinking makes us consider mental processes and human behavior solely through the lense of brain processes. For example, we may start treating addictions through medical interventions, without taking into account the many social and environmental factors at play.

Neuroessentialism is also used in more malicious ways to market products and give them an aura of scientific authority. In an article about neuroscience in the public sphere, researchers complained that “logically irrelevant neuroscience information imbues an argument with authoritative, scientific credibility.”

In the case of neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain can rewire itself can be used to position products as tools to unlock one’s hidden potential. It helps that these brain processes cannot be seen, making them mysterious and exciting — like something new to work on when all other tools have seemingly failed.

But Tom Stafford, a lecturer in psychology and cognitive science at the University of Sheffield, explains that “many claims about human psychology are adequately and entirely addressed at the level of behavior with no need to invoke neuroscientific evidence.”

It’s not that the concept of neuroplasticity is boggus — in fact, there is lots of interesting research going on in this branch of neuroscience — but, in many cases, we simply don’t need to refer to neuroplasticity to understand and alter human behavior.

And when we succumb to neuroessentialism and using neuroplasticity as an explanation for everything from habit formation to learning, we’re either ignoring other important factors beside brain processes, or we’re falling prey to pseudo-authoritative marketing designed to sell products that have little to do with the brain.

Thinking beyond the brain

That is not to say that we should ignore neuroplasticity as an important phenomenon that plays a role in how the brain works. Rather, we should apply caution when we engage with content that base their argument on neuroplasticity.

Here are three simple ways you can practice healthy skepticism when it comes to neuroplasticity:

  • Choose the most appropriate level of analysis. If you see the word neuroplasticity when reading an article or listening to a podcast, ask yourself: are brain processes the most relevant level of analysis to study this topic, or would a higher level of analysis make more sense? For example, when building new habits, wouldn’t the mental processes of motivation and attention be more helpful rather than the strengthening of synaptic connections?
  • Consider other factors. Brain processes are often only a small part of the picture. Of course, neuroplasticity plays an important role in many areas of human behavior. But what about social and environmental factors? Sure, depression has been linked to chemical imbalances in the brain, but many helpful interventions don’t rely on medication. Ask yourself: what are the other factors beside neuroplasticity that can impact changes in human behavior?
  • Question the intent. Be critical of the source of information. Are you reading a research paper from neuroscientists trying to understand brain processes, or a landing page for a product promising to help you rewire your brain? If you see “neuroplasticity” being used to sell a supplement or a brain training app, you can be almost certain that it’s being overhyped for marketing purposes.

Again, neuroplasticity is a real and fascinating phenomenon, and much more research needs to be conducted to understand how it works and its role in shaping human behavior. By thinking critically about the context in which you encounter the word, you can ensure you’re not being an unknowing victim of neurobabble.

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