Thursday, 11 December 2014

Neuroplasticity, neuroplasticity, neuroplasticity … The new overuse syndrome: Neuro-babble Tourettes

Never have I seen a word bandied about with such reckless abandon. 'Neuroplasticity' is simply ubiquitous, try a search on Twitter or Google, it’s a veritable delight of the good the bad and the ugly.

BUT what if I told you that ‘neuroplasticity is considered by some to be a dirty word … Not my opinion, but rather that of Vaughan Bell a London based neuroscientist and clinical psychologist.

So why does an eminent neuroscientist have such an aversion to the term?

Well my advice is to read the post, he describes far better than I ever could, how phrases like ‘your brain is plastic’, ‘rewire your brain’ and ‘neuroplasticity’ are virtually meaningless.

‘Neuroplasticity sounds very technical, but there is no accepted scientific definition for the term and, in its broad sense, it means nothing more than ‘something in the brain has changed’. As your brain is always changing ... the term is empty on its own.’

The article has a helpful educational element and puts neuroplasticity into perspective, going on to describe some of the most common processes associated with the term. With the rider that  ...

‘the next time you hear anyone, scientist or journalist, refer to neuroplasticity, ask yourself what specifically they are talking about. If they don’t specify or can’t tell you, they are blowing hot air.’

But Bell is not the only one critical of the current trend towards neuro-babble. Tom Stafford a Cognitive Scientist at the University of Sheffield in the UK wrote an equally cutting piece on the emerging trend of neuroessentialism, a classic neurologism if ever I heard one!

‘The belief in, or tactic of, invoking evidence, or merely terms, from neuroscience to justify claims at the psychological level...’

It goes on … in a delightfully written piece entitled ‘Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks’ which appeared in the New Statesman. Stephen Poole the British author and journalist dissects ‘the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash …’ Poole has written previously on the misuse and abuse of language in the brilliantly acerbic ‘Unspeak: Words are weapons’ and his rhetoric comes as a warning to all with regard to the rise in neuro-vernacular. His incisive observation of how ... 'the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena.' takes a couple of reads (whilst I neuroplasticise and conceptualise ...), but is particularly enlightening.

Further, he quotes Paul Fletcher, professor of Health Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, who suggests …

‘Too often, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.’

As physiotherapists we should both know and care what other professions and key writers are making of the real achievements and developments in neuroscience. Not least, because we need to be able to communicate effectively but also because we need to maintain and develop credibility. To spout forth repetitious neuro-babble, risks making us sound like new age neuroflaneurs and I am pretty sure that’s not a route we should be taking, as the profession steadily weeds out the nonsense.

While I’m on the case, just keep a look out for the emergence of neuro linguistic programming (NLP) amongst the maelstrom of information that comes your way. Indeed, I saw a tweeted PPT slide from a recent Physiotherapy conference detailing the key elements of NLP. If you’ve read around the subject, you may have encountered this eloquent deconstruction of that particular branch of ‘neurononsense’ … which you can find here.  If you are of a scientific persuasion, it would be wise to root out the ‘neuro-flapdoodle’ of NLP before it has chance to take root.

Thankfully, there does appear to be some awareness that we need to consider what we say and how we say it … I was alerted to an excellent piece on pain by Lorimer Moseley, entitled ‘It is not just the brain that changes itself – time to embrace bioplasticity?’, where, somewhat ironically, but honestly, he discusses the concept of ‘bioplasticity’. Moseley, clearly alerted to the linguistic pressures of the topic, makes light of the neurobabble by constructing a few (tongue in cheek) terms of his own. Then adds the following slice of antipodean back pedalling humour:

‘Bioplasticity is, from herein, the new black. I repent my neurocentric ways and hold aloft the banner of biocentricity. It seems to me to be a fairer reflection of what we know about ourselves and it is a sensible umbrella term for the changes that occur across multiple systems when, for example, pain persists, or when, for example, we try to change pain. In fact, these tasks that we call neuroplasticity training, do not only induce changes in the nervous system, so perhaps they should be called bioplasticity training. Just a thought. And immune activation. And endocrine response. And motor output. And heart rate fluctuation….’

So there we have it … and it truly is a thought that we should keep. Perhaps we really should consider a ‘system based approach’ (I think I have argued this case before…) to our consideration of pain and dysfunction. We should work together to combine the brilliant emerging elements of pain science and brain function with a sound consideration of the amazing system that is the human body, which of course includes the periphery. A brain requires a body, and vice versa … ask any suffer of quadriplegia or Wallenberg syndrome. BUT let us not become the new neuroflaneurs of pseudo pop-psychology, by endless repetition of meaningless neurobabble, because there are folk out there who clearly, can see through it.

Our role requires us to work in multidisciplinary teams and it may be prudent for us to be cognisant of the opinions of other professions with regard to the way the emerging knowledge is considered, disseminated and taught. It may be wise to consider our own linguistics and mantras in this field too ... lest we begin to sound like 'beauticians talking about action liposomes'. Therein lies our challenge ...

Here's a helpful linguistics tip … via the eloquently entitled neurobollocks website

‘when you see (or hear – sic) the word ‘neuroplasticity’ think ‘bollocks’ instead ... 99% of the time you’ll be absolutely dead-on.’ 

For those who find that perhaps a little harsh ... My own personal strategy hereon in, is to simply substitute 'neuroplasticity' with 'neuro-flapdoodle' every time I encounter it in common parlance ... It just brightens my days up no end. Such is the power of language. 

Alan J Taylor is a writer and critic who thinks about stuff and works as a Physiotherapist and University lecturer ... The views contained in this blog are his own and are not linked to any organisation or institution. Like Bukowski, he writes to stay sane.

You'll find him mostly on Twitter