Brain Plasticity
Neural Plasticity


Unceasing changes to the brain and nervous system

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … established patterns of brain activity
  • Knowing is … current brain activity
  • Learner is … a brain-centered organism
  • Learning is … transforming the brain
  • Teaching is … triggering transformations of the brain




Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change throughout the lifespan, with the developing (i.e., young) brain being more plastic than the adult brain. Changes include, but are not limited to, strengthening and weakening of synapses, establishing and losing connectivity, transfer of functions to different locations, and changes to proportions of grey matter. Neuroplasticity occurs across most levels of brain organization and activity. It is occasioned by a wide range of factors, including thought, behavior, emotions, nutrition, and environmental stimuli. Associated discourses include:
  • Hebbian Learning (Hebb’s Rule) (Donald Hebb, 1940s) – concisely stated as “Neurons that fire together wire together,” Hebbian Learning refers to the emergence of associations among cells (or systems of cells) that arise when they are activated at the same time.
  • Hemispheric Lateralization (Hemispheric Specialization; Cerebral Lateralization) – the processes by which control of some mental and physical functions come to be controlled or influenced more by one brain hemisphere than another (contrast: Left-Brain/Right-Brain Theory, under Cognitive Styles Theories)


It was only in the closing decades of the 20th century that a popular awareness arose that the brain changes, replacing the prevailing orthodoxy that “the brain you have now is the brain you’ve always had” with the evidence-based realization that “you meet each experience with a different brain.” Among the positive consequences, that insight compelled reconsiderations of the Medical Model of (Dis)Ability and compelled deeper considerations of the role of Motivation Theories in understanding learning. On the negative side, in some camps Neuroplasticity served as the foundation of a booming industry focused on training brains, changing mindsets, and becoming smarter – all worthy goals, but each vastly more complex than many of the simplistic products and programs being peddled to educators.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

In spite of the popularly of the notion in some corners of formal education, Neuroplasticity is a feature of nervous systems, not a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Neuroplasticity is not a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Neuroplasticity is a scientifically demonstrated phenomenon, but it would be a complete misclassification to describe it as a scientific theory.


  • Hebbian Learning (Hebb’s Rule)
  • Hemispheric Lateralization (Hemispheric Specialization; Cerebral Lateralization)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Neuroplasticity” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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