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. Many mechanisms for Neuroplasticity have been identified, including:
  • Cross Modal Plasticity – the integration of two or more sensory modalities through a reorganization of neural networks. It is typically triggered by sensory deprivation or brain injury.
  • Experience-Dependent Plasticity – those changes to the brain that are due to environmental conditions – typically associated with specific cultures, social groups, skill clusters, and knowledge domains
  • Experience-Expectant Plasticity – evolution-based (i.e., species-wide) changes to the brain that enable common proficiencies (e.g., visual perception, language)
  • Functional Plasticity (Vicariation) – the shifting of functions from one area of the brain to another, usually associated with trauma and recovery. Functional Plasticity is based on:
    • Equipotentiality (Karl Spencer Lashley, 1940s) – the principle that the capacity of any healthy part of a brain can take on the functions that another part has lost due to trauma. (Note: should not be confused with Equipotentiality described under Behaviorisms.)
  • Neurogenesis – the creation of new neurons and/or new connections among neurons.
  • Synaptic Plasticity (Jerzy Konorski, 1940s) – the synaptic changes (mainly pruning) that enable experience-prompted modifications to brain function. Synaptic Plasticity is the most important form of Neuroplasticity. Key dynamics include:
    • Long-Term Potentiation – the strengthening of synaptic connections through repeated activation of neurons, prompting robust and enduring communications between them
    • Long-Term Depression – the weakening of communication between neurons weaken, most often due to disuse
Neuroplasticity varies across one’s lifetime:
  • Critical Periods (of Brain Development) – specific periods during which Neuroplasticity is greatest. While they vary across individuals, competencies, and contexts, the two most commonly noted Critical Periods happen during infancy and adolescence. With the former, synaptic density peaks between ages 1 and 2 years, and this critical time is associated with development of the visual system, auditory system, and motor skills. The latter is associated with increased cultural awareness, social competency, and personal responsibility.
Associated discourses include:
  • Brain Growth – those aspects of Neuroplasticity that have to do with brain growth, including increases in the mass and complexity of the brain, especially across the first 20 years of life. Typically, brain development in humans, is very fast in the first few years of life, with rapid bursts of growth in different regions into adolescence, and a slow decline after reaching maximum mass in early adulthood.
  • Cortical Recycling (Neuronal Recycling) (Stanislas Dehaene, 2000s) – the co-oping of existing neural circuits for other purposes. The phenomenon was proposed to explain how humans are able to develop complex cognitive functions (e.g., language) that are too recent to be attributable to biological evolution.
  • Hebbian Learning (Hebb’s Rule) (Donald Hebb, 1940s) – concisely stated as “Neurons that fire together wire together,” the emergence of associations among cells (or systems of cells) that arise when they are activated at the same time
  • Hemispheric Lateralization (Cerebral Lateralization; Hemispheric Specialization; Lateral Specialization) – the processes by which  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, some have interpreted Neuroplasticity as a capacity to completely rewire or repurpose brain regions when, in fact, the phenomenon likely has more to do with modest modifications of preexisting structures. An exaggerated interpretation Neuroplasticity has 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. Examples of such discourses include:
  • Framestorm® (Anette Prehn, 2010s) – a strategy for reframing one’s interpretation of a challenging situation. This strategy is based on a mashup of popular understandings of Neuroplasticity and Mindset
  • Self-Directed Neuroplasticity (Rick Hanson, 2020s) – an attempt to combine Neuroplasticity with the popular notion of “the power of positive thinking,” used to layer a scientific tone to the suggestion that one can deliberately “rewire” the brain in ways of one’s choosing

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.


  • Brain Growth
  • Cortical Recycling (Neuronal Recycling)
  • Critical Periods (of Brain Development)
  • Cross Modal Plasticity
  • Equipotentiality
  • Experience-Dependent Plasticity
  • Experience-Expectant Plasticity
  • Framestorm®
  • Functional Plasticity (Vicariation)
  • Hebbian Learning (Hebb’s Rule)
  • Hemispheric Lateralization (Cerebral Lateralization; Hemispheric Specialization; Lateral Specialization)
  • Long-Term Depression
  • Long-Term Potentiation
  • Neurogenesis
  • Self-Directed Neuroplasticity
  • Synaptic Plasticity

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2024). “Neuroplasticity” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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