People who know me well, often find me to be a playful sort, particularly if they are playful sorts themselves. Play feels good to me, and neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp explains why when he calls play “the brain source of joy.” From his research play appears to increase gene expression in the frontal lobes, the same areas where longtime meditators show greater numbers and connections of neurons. Increased frontal lobe connectivity is also believed to play a significant integrative function, enhancing my capacity for self-reflection along with these other nine qualities that Dan Siegel identifies in The Mindful Brain: enhanced body regulation, more attuned communication, greater emotional balance, increased flexibility, greater empathy, expanded insight, easier fear modulation, increased intuition and more active moral awareness. Play also appears to be critical in strengthening my immune system (I am, in fact, rarely sick), and increases resilience under stress (which I severely put to the test this past spring when a home purchase in the current very restrictive lending environment put the closing more than two months past the scheduled date).
By studying the California sea snail Aplysia for nearly 30 years, Eric Kandel discovered how learning and memory work (He originally started out searching for the neural equivalents of Freud’s id, ego and superego!). Essentially, five sequential pulses of serotonin cause a brain neuron to shoot out a new branch (dendrite), significantly increasing neural connectivity. Kandel partly won the Nobel Prize for this discovery, depicted here.
The Happy Molecule
And what is serotonin? The Happy Molecule. Which suggests that play involves learning how to learn, and children who demonstrate an ease with play learn best and are also more likely to feel free to be creative. They also have more fun while they learn! Because of its often unscripted nature, play prepares children for an unpredictable world, one in which flexibility and curiosity will later stand them in especially good stead. And just like with puppies and bear cubs, roughhousing in the grass is a brain-directed activity that seems to provide for optimal brain development in kids as well. Years ago, I recall Joseph Chilton Pearce writing in The Magical Child that “anxiety is the enemy of intelligence.” Play would seem to be nature’s way of easing that anxiety.
As something of a test for this point of view, Wray Herbert writes in Newsweek (Is EF the new IQ?) about several interesting studies attempting to improve Executive Function in children ( EF – to see just how much brain damage you’re actually walking around with, check out this link!). In one study, working with four and five year olds in a northeast preschool, Adele Diamond, from the University of British Columbia, put the Tools of the Mind Program to scientific test. She had these kids walk around, talk to themselves and tell each other stories – in other words, actively play! She then compared them to a control group of kids in a traditional classroom. Their performance on standardized tests was so markedly improved that school officials stopped the experiment and put all the kids into the Tools of the Mind program.
I think that the Wisdom Teaching suggesting adults “become as little children” is essentially an optimal neural directive, one closely connected to the cultivation of Beginner’s Mind. Beginner’s Mind invites inquiry, curiosity and play. I have little doubt that Eric Kandel was able to work with Aplysia for more than 30 years because he found a wonderful playmate, as this poem his daughter, Minouche wrote, and a photo of Aplysia wearing his Nobel Prize medal suggests. In the beginner’s mind there are lots of possibilities to vitally engage in play, in the expert’s, few. Might we all benefit by the experts of the world giving up their titles in favor of finding suitable playmates?
But what if we aren’t people who play well – with ourselves or with others? What then? It comes down, I think, to the way any of us gets to Carnegie Hall…by playing, playing, playing. About 10000 hours worth should do the trick, or so the experts tell us.