One of the earliest allusions to the idea of neuroplasticity appears in James’s 1890 work The Principles of Psychology, where he speaks of the nervous system’s ability to develop habits through ‘the possession of a structure weak enough to yield an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once’, which he describes as ‘plastic’. What is implied here is a degree of structural stability which remains open to transformation. While the idea that the adult human brain as structurally fixed persisted well into the 20th century, neuroplasticity is now widely accepted in the field of neuroscience.
Philosopher Malabou has found an alternative lineage of plasticity in Hegel, his dialectical thought providing for her an idea of plasticity not only as the capacity to receive and give form, but also as an ‘explosive’ capacity for self-destruction and recreation. This latter aspect has allowed Malabou to bring plasticity to bear on the topic of traumatic brain injuries. Philosophers working in the area of the extended mind have also drawn on neuroplasticity to argue that the mind is not only embedded in its environment, but that the two are significantly co-constitutive, that the tools we use for engaging with the world—from pen and paper to smartphones—can be seen as enacting more-or-less dramatic changes in the structure and functioning of the brain.