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Stuart Brown

Stuart Brown

Play, Yes, You Must

Why play allows changes and prepares us for the unexpected.

Change is the mantra of the age of Obama. But what essential aspects of human nature best prepare us for change and for the unexpected? The world is now particularly fragile economically and braced for major stress and transformation. A new Science of Play is emerging that, I believe, provides an effective foundation that, if fully embraced, will facilitate healthy changes required for major societal change without catastrophe.

A close look at the evolution of play behavior, an instinctive force that becomes more complex the smarter and more social the creature, reveals important long-term survival data, based on our biological design.

It has been long known that the brain stem of all vertebrates, that part above the spinal cord and below the cerebral cortex and other higher centers, contains the essentials for survival, such as regulation of respiration, and the initiation of sleep-dream-waking cycles. Major disruption of any of these centers results in death. (though it takes a couple of weeks of sleep deprivation to kill you) These survival structures, though influenced and interactive with the environment nonetheless operate automatically. One doesn’t think about how to dilate or constrict one’s pupil as light intensity changes. All of these survival elements are similar in mammals, and their cellular architecture, and neurotransmitters are virtually identical. Each has a fascinating evolutionary history, now allowing comparative biologists to see our human similarities to other like endowed creatures. What is currently not appreciated, is that the structures that initiate and foster play are also located in the brain stem.

So what has this got to do with our capacity for adaptive change? Plenty.

For example, in detailed studies of play behavior, it can be shown that when infant rats have their brain cortex removed, these decoriticated rats spontaneously engage vigorously in rat rough and tumble play. This demonstrates that at least this form of universally seen play behavior in social mammals is triggered from the brain stem-survival centers.

Living without a cortex is bizarre. However, there is more to the story. Without their cortex, rats can’t learn the basics of how to survive in a complicated rat culture. They cannot mate, they cannot tell friend from foe, so the usual learning process that rough and tumble rat play provides requires cortical learning and integration.

OK, again, so what?

Well, if normal rats with an intact brain are not allowed to engage in rough and tumble play, guess what happens? They behave socially as if they were without a cortex! They can’t mate, and can’t tell friend from foe. So play behavior, rising from primal brain stem structures and of ancient evolutionary design feeds the higher centers and enables and crafts the social brain. And it is a necessary survival drive. The experience of rough and tumble rat play teaches the rats how to mate, and how to socialize as adults. This allows reproduction and the avoidance of fellow rat attacks. And much more. That this is primal survival behavior in rats may seem an interesting and potentially cruel behaviorists way to study rat play behavior, and at first glance may seem very distant from the reality of human play. However,

I studied a group of young murderers many years ago in Texas, well before these rat studies were conducted and published. Among many findings was the observation that none of these murderers had engaged in normal rough and tumble play when growing up, as compared to a large matched group also under study. Since then, the human clinical data on the importance of rough and tumble play in the development of social competency has been affirmed.

When we are deprived of sleep, food or water, we suffer the consequences rather quickly and have physiologic sensors that tell us we are in trouble. Not so with play deprivation. Its effects, unless play is profoundly suppressed or absent in infancy and early childhood, are delayed. So the fact we do not die of play deprivation does not mean it is not essential to long-term survival. Play differs from the other evolutionary hard-wired brain stem mechanisms, but it nonetheless is very ancient and profoundly necessary. Ponder for a minute what life would be like without play? Or better, what are the attributes that a fulsome play life provides?

For humans (and other most advanced social mammals) play provides trust, empathy, fair play, perseverance, optimism, resiliency, physical well-being, and much more.

Future entries will outline each of these benefits in more detail, and also demonstrate the urgency of providing adequate understanding of play throughout any human life cycle, as it is necessary for enabling change, and sustaining the will and spirit to enact it.

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About the Author

Stuart Brown

Stuart Brown is the founder and president of The National Institute for Play.