Play by Stuart Brown


RATING: 8/10…READ: November 16, 2013

A book that helped me realize life is not all about productivity and how starved for play I really was. This book helped me refocus my priorities to doing things because I genuinely enjoy them versus doing something for some monumental impact, productivity, or status seeking.

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Play is a profound biological process. It has evolved over eons in many animal species to promote survival. It shapes the brain and makes animals smarter and more adaptable. In higher animals, it fosters empathy and makes possible complex social groups. For us, play lies at the core of creativity and innovation.

Consider what the world would be like without play. It’s not just an absence of games or sports. Life without play is a life without books, without movies, art, music, jokes, dramatic stories. Imagine a world with no flirting, no day-dreaming, no comedy, no irony. Such a world would be a pretty grim place to live.

At some point as we get older, however, we are made to feel guilty for playing. We are told that it is unproductive, a waste of time, even sinful. The play that remains is, like league sports, mostly very organized, rigid, and competitive. We strive to always be productive, and if an activity doesn’t teach us a skill, make us money, or get on the boss’s good side, then we feel we should not be doing it. Sometimes the sheer demands of daily living seem to rob us of the ability to play.

The skeptics among the audiences I talk to will say, “Well, duh. Of course you will be happy if you play all the time. But for those of us who aren’t rich, or retired, or both, there’s simply is no time for play.” Or they might say that if they truly gave in to the desire to experience the joy of free play, they would never get anything done.

They found that the bears that played the most were the ones who survived best.

Active play selectively stimulates brain-derived neurotrophic factor (which stimulates nerve growth) in the amygdala (where emotions get processed) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (where executive decisions are processed).

So how do we create these “simulations”? Through watching and engaging in sports, physical activities, books, storytelling, art, movies, and much, much more.

The truth is that play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself.

But when play is denied over the long term, our mood darkens. We lose our sense of optimism and we become anhedonic, or incapable of feeling sustained pleasure.

Remember the definition of play: an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time. It is also self-motivating and makes you want to do it again.

Another line of thought is that art promotes community integration and interaction. Music, dance, and painting, so often part of harvest festivals and religious observances, bring people together to “sing with one voice.” Art is part of a deep, preverbal communication that binds people together. It is literally a communion.

The work that we find most fulfilling is almost always a recreation and extension of youthful play.

As amazing as it seems, studies of the Dutch “hunger winter” during World War II demonstrate that your IQ, your risk of heart disease, and other health problems are influenced by how well your grandmother ate during the third trimester of her pregnancy with your mother.

Later, kids get toys that come straight out of hit movies or TV shows, toys that come with a preset collection of ideas about who the characters are and how children should play with the toys. This kind of preformed script can rob the child of the ability to create his own story. Instead, he is mimicking the expressions and lines that he is expected to say. A chance for imaginative flights of fancy is lost.

Classic book here, Joseph Meeker’s The Comedy of Survival, as a prime text for orienting adolescents (and adults) to a nonidealized world.

A great exercise that I often used for both kids and adults was to ask them to visualize their lives five or ten years in the future, focusing not on whether they want to be a lawyer or be rich, but instead on what they might be doing that would make them really happy and excited.

isn’t necessity the mother of invention? The answer to that question is no. I would say that necessity only sets the stage for invention and innovation. Play is the mother of invention. Polaroid may have really needed a great new product to replace its lucrative consumer photography business (which is now pretty much dead because of digital cameras), but the necessity of finding a replacement didn’t lead to one before the company went bankrupt. (Polaroid’s assets were sold to other companies, and the name Polaroid does live on, but much diminished in comparison with its former grandeur.) Necessity is more like a first date. Moving on to become the bride and then the mother of invention requires much more.

Some studies report that brainstorming is no better than asking individuals for ideas.

To really regain play in your life you will need to take a journey back into the past to help create avenues for play that work for you in the present. This can be done through a complete play history, or it can be done by simply sitting and remembering (and often visualizing) something you did in the past that gave you the sense of unfettered pleasure, of time suspended, of total involvement, of wanting to do this thing again and again. Remember how that made you feel? Remember and feel that emotion and hold on to it, because that is what’s going to save you. The memory of that emotion is going to be the life raft that keeps you from drowning. It can be the rope that lifts you out of your play-deficient well.

The defining factor among couples who were able to find romance again, and even to find new fields of emotional intimacy previously unexplored, was that they were able to find ways to play together. Those who played together, stayed together. Those who didn’t either split or, worse yet, simply endured an unhappy and dysfunctional relationship.

Even if loyalty, responsibility, duty, and steadfastness remain, without playfulness there will be insufficient vitality left over to keep the relationship buoyant and satisfying.

Narcissistic lovers are intensely entitled, goal-driven, with orgasm, entrapment, guaranteed lifelong dependency, or domination as the goal.

The couples who are doing the familiar and pleasurable are also feeling good, but they likely are not playing.

There is recent scientific evidence that our brains react differently to three-dimensional objects than they do to the two-dimensional representations on video or computer screens. In one particular study, using a brain imaging technique known as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), a window allowing direct vision overhead was a part of the experiment. When a real hand holding a ball was presented in the window, large areas of the brain’s visual and associational circuits were activated. When a picture of a hand holding a ball was shown, the visual cortex demonstrated similar arousal but the associational areas were virtually silent. Seems as if we are programmed to “see” more comprehensively in natural settings.

What he believed was that people should find the path in life that fuels their spirit, that speaks to them on the deepest level. But Campbell also showed that this path is sometimes hard. “If your bliss is just fun and excitement, then you are on the wrong path,” he would say. “Sometimes pain is bliss.”

I have had similar moments emotionally when poking through neuroscience literature, and finding an “aha” such as the realization that REM sleep and play share similar brain stem evolutionary biological patterns.

Be aware of play killers. Part of nourishing your play is putting yourself in an environment that supports and promotes that play. As I’ve just noted, this is most obvious if you are in an abusive or fearful situation, either in a relationship or at work. If you find yourself often talking about or taking on someone’s troubles, or find yourself in a supportive role in which you listen but cannot actually do much to change the situation, that, too, is a play killer. If you are in a relationship in which your interests and ideas are not taken seriously or appreciated, that, too, is a play killer. If people around you cannot learn to understand your need for play, find people who do.