What Is Brain Plasticity? Psychology Of The Changing Brain

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated October 11, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free, one-on-one support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Scientists continuously study the most complicated organ in the human body: the brain. The brain has been linked with intelligence and creativity since before humans knew how it works. One recent development in psychology has been the discovery of "neuroplasticity," —also called brain plasticity, neural plasticity, and neuronal plasticity. Neuroplasticity is the nervous system’s ability to change and alter itself after new experiences or even trauma, resulting in structural and functional changes in the brain.

The Health Of Your Brain Can Affect Your Daily Functioning

What Is Brain Plasticity?

The human brain is made up of roughly 86 billion neurons (nerve cells) that communicate with each other using special chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters allow neurons of other areas of the brain to communicate with each other, forming neural pathways.

The cells of the brain don't only communicate via neurotransmitters; they can also communicate with adjacent cells via electrical impulses. This area is where brain plasticity, also called "neuroplasticity" or "neuronal plasticity," and the science of plasticity psychology is involved. The geographical layout of the brain isn't set in stone; it can change, develop, and rearrange— the very definition of plasticity.  Simply put, the brain, can change its structure and function through neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is different from neurogenesis, the process in which new neurons are created in the brain.

Brain plasticity can also be particularly important for helping repair brain damage caused by stroke or traumatic brain injury.

The Story Of Einstein's Brain

For years it was thought that the size of one's brain determined their intelligence. Consider Samuel L. Jackson's line in Pulp Fiction, "Look at the big brain on Brett!" However, scientists know that the average human brain weighs roughly three pounds. Brain size only varies by species. If intelligence were based on brain weight, large animals would be more intelligent than humans. 

This theory was up to the test in 1955. In 1955, Albert Einstein died in New Jersey. Einstein was one of the 20th century's greatest minds, changing how many people thought about time, energy, and other areas of interest. Researchers thought his brain would be enormous. After Einstein's last breath, his brain was taken and studied. It was found to weigh around 2.7 pounds. Despite Einstein's advanced age, it seemed shocking that his brain would be smaller than average.

The brain wasn't only weighed. It was also photographed, painted, dissected, made into slides, mailed around the country, and eventually stored in mason jars inside a beer cooler in a residence in Wichita, Kansas. However, these results showcased how the size of a brain doesn't determine one's intelligence.

How Was Plasticity Psychology Formed? 

All brains structure includes "folds" on the outside surface. The shallower ones are called gyri, and the deeper ones are called fissures. The brain's geography has helped scientists map it and learn which parts of the brain control different functions. The dentate gyrus plays a critical role in learning and memory, the prefrontal cortex helps people set goals, and the cerebral cortex is responsible for many high-order brain functions.

Einstein's brain lacked one of the primary fissures. Scientists believe this lack of fissure granted more significant logical reasoning in the identified area, making him more efficient in mathematics. It also had a greater neuron density than the average brain. 

In 1955, scientists may have had Einstein's brain, but they didn't have an effective way to look at a living person's brain. Forty years later, researchers had more effective imaging capabilities that let them look at the brains of living people. In 1998, Dr. Bruce McEwen discovered that the shapes of our brains could change in response to how we use them.

Neuroplasticity states that when you use your brain, it changes. This discovery removed the significant obstacle of the once-held belief that the ability and function of the brain are predetermined by genetic factors. What you can do is determined by what you try to do and how much you try to do it, not by the size and weight of the brain you were born with.

Practicing Neuroplasticity

The science of neuroplasticity has played a vital role in how psychologists approach mood disorders. However, like Einstein, you don't need a mood disorder to benefit from neuroplasticity. Anyone can practice it.

Neuroplasticity means that new experiences can result in a restructuring of communication pathways between brain cells. Several computer games and applications have been developed to help users practice complex tasks. This process can influence how a brain takes shape, regardless of age. These games are related to the theory that word puzzles and other cognitive exercises keep you sharp in old age.

There are debates among experts as to the validity of these theories. However, there has never been a study that showed that they can cause harm to humans. So, while you may not want to pay for a fancy brain training game or app subscription, word puzzles in the newspaper might benefit your brain. Additionally, learning a language, practicing math, reading a book, learning to read music, or looking up history might increase your capacity for information processing. 

Plasticity Psychology Today

Psychology experts may be skeptical about how much you can accomplish with your resources but tend to be more confident of what you can do with professional help and more advanced tools. One crucial area where plasticity psychology comes in is the treatment of mood disorders like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

At times, mental illnesses are caused by events in a person's life, like chronic stress, a death in the family, or a traumatic event. Some people believe PTSD is a condition that develops in soldiers who have served in combat zones. However, scientists have confirmed that PTSD can follow violent crimes, abuse, accidents, and other traumatic events, which are more common than military trauma. 

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat

In other cases, mental illnesses may be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Mood disorders sometimes arise during brain development because the body releases neurotransmitters incorrectly. In addition, the brain might not have the correct number of active receivers for them.

Still, others might face both obstacles. Perhaps they had a genetic predisposition for a mood disorder, and trauma created an opportunity for a mental health condition to emerge. In these cases, mood disorders or PTSD may occur. 

Many individuals with mood disorders have decreased neuroplasticity. In addition to limiting them in other ways, this factor can prevent them from overcoming their condition without professional help. As a result, some people cope with their mood disorders through therapy. Others rely on prescription medication. Some people use a combination of talk therapy and medication to get treatment. 

Prescriptions for mood disorders can help fix the neurotransmitter imbalance that may have contributed to the condition. Still, they can also increase neuroplasticity, making it easier for a client to recover through therapy. Therapy can also help those living with a biological mental illness. 

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The Health Of Your Brain Can Affect Your Daily Functioning

Professional Support Options 

While anyone can benefit from neuroplasticity, some people may not find success activating it by themselves. In these cases, it can be beneficial to work with a counselor as you learn how to use your brain's adaptability to your advantage. If you face barriers to counseling, like cost, distance, or availability, you can also try online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp.

Internet-based therapy can connect you with a licensed, qualified mental health professional. Whether you're struggling with a mood disorder, traumatic event, or brain injury, a therapist can work with you to find ways to move forward. Different challenges can make it more difficult to make time for counseling. Online therapy allows you to schedule sessions with a therapist according to your busy schedule. You won't have to worry about the commute time, and you can connect through video chats, phone calls, or in-app messaging, depending on your comfort level. 

When the brain changes, such as after experiencing a traumatic event, therapy can be a helpful resource to move forward. One study assessed the efficacy of a web-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) intervention for addressing post-traumatic stress disorder. Researchers concluded that the online intervention successfully treated PTSD as efficiently as face-to-face CBT and "should be considered a first-line treatment for people with this condition."


Life can involve challenges, stressors, and adverse events that impact the brain. You can sometimes experience healing on your own through various tools already available. Other times, professional intervention can be necessary, particularly if you struggle to move forward. 

Working with a therapist, you can learn new coping mechanisms and overcome the obstacles in your life. Consider reaching out to a provider online or in your area for more information on how they might be able to support you.

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