Get access

Neural Plasticity, Neuronal Recycling and Niche Construction



    Corresponding author
    1. ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorder and Department of Philosophy, Macquarie University
    • Address for correspondence: Department of Philosophy, Macquarie University, Balaclava Road, North Ryde, Sydney, NSW 2109, Australia. Email:

    Search for more papers by this author

  • Thanks to Max Coltheart, Anne Castles, Greg Downey, Colin Klein and three anonymous referees for comments. Thanks also to audiences at the University of Milan and Amsterdam. The research for this paper was supported by the Australian Research Council grant DP1095109.


In Reading in the Brain, Stanislas Dehaene presents a compelling account of how the brain learns to read. Central to this account is his neuronal recycling hypothesis: neural circuitry is capable of being ‘recycled’ or converted to a different function that is cultural in nature. The original function of the circuitry is not entirely lost and constrains what the brain can learn. It is argued that the neural niche co-evolves with the environmental niche in a way that does not undermine the core ideas of neuronal recycling, but which is quite different from the models of cognitive and cultural evolution provided by evolutionary psychology and epidemiology.

Dehaene contrasts neuronal recycling with a naïve model of the brain as a general learning device that is unconstrained in what it can learn. Consequently a tension develops in Dehaene's account of the role of plasticity in the acquisition of language. It is argued that the functional and structural changes in the brain that Dehaene documents in great detail are driven by learning and that this learning-driven plasticity does not commit us to a naïve model of the brain.