Most fishes experiencing challenging environments are able to adjust and adapt their physiology and behaviour to help them cope more effectively. Much of this flexibility is supported and influenced by cognition and neural plasticity. The understanding of fish cognition and the role played by different regions of the brain has improved significantly in recent years. Techniques such as lesioning, tract tracing and quantifying changes in gene expression help in mapping specialized brain areas. It is now recognized that the fish brain remains plastic throughout a fish's life and that it continues to be sensitive to environmental challenges. The early development of fish brains is shaped by experiences with the environment and this can promote positive and negative effects on both neural plasticity and cognitive ability. This review focuses on what is known about the interactions between the environment, the telencephalon and cognition. Examples are used from a diverse array of fish species, but there could be a lot to be gained by focusing research on neural plasticity and cognition in fishes for which there is already a wealth of knowledge relating to their physiology, behaviour and natural history, e.g. the Salmonidae.