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Beyond Neuroplasticity

Our brains are much more adaptive and complex than we previously imagined.

Key points

  • "Neuroadaptability" is a more nuanced term than "neuroplasticity" for brain resilience and adaptation.
  • The term "plasticity" has problematic connotations, unlike the dynamic and adaptive processes of the brain.
  • "Neuroadaptability" emphasizes the brain's context-sensitive adjustments, crucial for recovery and resilience.

In recent years, the word neuroplasticity has captivated neuroscientists, psychologists, and the broader public, with its implications for recovery from brain injuries, cognitive therapy, and everyday learning. I propose a more nuanced term: neuroadaptability. It encompasses not only the brain's ability to change and grow but also its capacity for resilience and adaptation in diverse and challenging environments.

The revised label is especially applicable to cult survivors processing their experiences. This leads to greater understanding and facilitates recovery from cult influence.

The Problems with Neuroplasticity

As celebrated in psychiatrist Norman Doidge's The Brain That Changes Itself, neuroplasticity suggests a uniform capacity for change across all brain regions and individuals. But that is not the case.

The term plasticity itself carries problematic connotations. Plastics as materials are petroleum products, and their presence as micro and nano-plastics in our oceans is a significant environmental concern. This toxic association is starkly opposite the organic nature of brain processes.

Plastic materials are thought of as things that can be formed and re-formed by melting, but that is not an accurate representation of how the brain works. The brain's changes are far more responsive to context and involve neurogenesis, whereby new synapses sprout and neurons make stronger connections.

Introducing Neuroadaptability

Neuroadaptability emphasizes the brain's ongoing and context-sensitive capacity for adjustment. That is a crucial distinction for those recovering from cult influence. The term aligns well with the principles of resilience and flexibility, which are increasingly recognized as vital components of mental health and cognitive function. For former cult members, neuroadaptability highlights the importance of the brain's ability to adapt and reorganize in response to new, healthier environments and information.

Neuroadaptability and Cult Recovery

In destructive cults, the programming of a cult identity is one expression of how the mind adapts. How people can return and reclaim their identity is yet another.

Here is how neuroadaptability functions with regard to the elements of manipulation and undue influence used by destructive cults.

Behavior Control: Neuroadaptability allows individuals to reassert their autonomy even within previously restrictive settings. With ethical leadership and personal freedom, the brain's ability to adapt behaviorally is crucial for recovery.

Information Control: Neuroadaptability supports critical assessment and integration of new information, essential for those emerging from cult environments. By fostering cognitive flexibility, neuroadaptability enables individuals to question and re-evaluate beliefs in light of new evidence.

Thought Control: The capacity to adapt and shift thought processes is vital in resisting indoctrination and rebuilding a personal belief system. Neuroadaptability encompasses forming new neural pathways and modifying existing ones, allowing for a dynamic and resilient cognitive landscape, critical for former cult members.

Emotional Control: Emotional resilience is a key component of neuroadaptability. For those recovering from cult influence, the ability to adapt emotionally, recover from setbacks, and maintain emotional balance is crucial.

Real-World Examples and Studies

Several studies underscore the value of neuroadaptability in healing from cult influence. For instance, research by Dr. Michael Merzenich has shown that targeted cognitive training can significantly improve brain function, demonstrating the brain's capacity for adaptation.

Moreover, the work of Eleanor Maguire with London taxi drivers, who develop an enlarged hippocampus through their extensive experience navigating the extremely complex road system of their city, illustrates how neuroadaptability supports specialized cognitive functions. These examples highlight brain adaptation's ongoing, context-dependent nature, which is better captured by neuroadaptability than by neuroplasticity alone.


The term neuroadaptability offers a more comprehensive and dynamic framework for understanding the brain's capacity for change, particularly in the context of cult recovery. We can appreciate the importance of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral adaptability in maintaining mental health and autonomy. Future research aimed at unraveling the precise mechanisms and boundaries of neuroadaptability will be crucial in translating this knowledge into effective and ethical applications.


Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Viking.

Hassan, S. A., PhD (2018). Combating Cult Mind Control: The Guide to Protection, Rescue and Recovery from Destructive Cults (4th ed.). Freedom of Mind Press.

Maguire, E. A., Woollett, K., & Spiers, H. J. (2006). London taxi drivers and bus drivers: a structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus, 16(12), 1091–1101.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Stress and Cognition. In M. S. Gazzaniga (Ed.), The Cognitive Neurosciences (3rd ed., pp. 1031–1042). Boston Review.

Davidson, R. J., & McEwen, B. S. (2012). Social influences on neuroplasticity: Stress and interventions to promote well-being. Nature Neuroscience, 15(5), 689–695.

Merzenich, M. M. (2001). Cortical plasticity contributing to child development. In J. L. McClelland & R. S. Siegler (Eds.), Mechanisms of Cognitive Development: Behavioral and Neural Perspectives (pp. 67–95). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Pascual-Leone, A. (2005). The Plastic Human Brain Cortex. Annual Review of Neuroscience. annurev.neuro.27.070203.144216

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