John Stevens

Natural “player” that I am, my eye was drawn to a TED talk on the subject of play. How vital it is to a sane and balanced life. How to make it happen. How human play correlates with and can interact with animal play. Fascinating, at least to me! I hope you find it similarly engaging. The video is a little over 20 minutes long. For those short on time, I’ve noted the time on some passages that relate to parts of the talk I discuss. Of course it all “hangs together” better if you listen to the whole thing.

The speaker, Dr. Stuart Brown, is a lifelong student and practicing doctor of psychiatry and clinical research. He founded the National Institute for Play to further this fascinating study.

The big bear is ‘dancing” with his meal

In this talk Brown starts with a photo of a big polar bear intent on his next meal. When the bear encounters a husky in play mode, he engages playfully with her. Of course the little dog would have been a tasty meal for the bear. Her playful demeanor distracted the bear from his hunger.

Children, of course, unless they’re in pretty grim circumstances, are inclined to and usually encouraged to play. As adults, we become more concerned with doing things, we forget to play. To our detriment!

Doing something because it’s fun, or feels good, is beneficial to the human and, it seems, the animal spirit. Play should be focused on fun and enjoyment, even when it’s producing something useful. Ever notice that some golfers get so obsessed with improving their score that they aren’t fun to play with? Of course striving for improvement is natural and positive. When it becomes work, though, it’s not play.

Brown goes on to describe many kinds of play – e.g. social, object, spectator play. He talks about the brain science that supports the concept of the value of play. Of course, as he also mentions, play should not be at the expense of others.

Rats, often studied as a proxy for human instinctive behavior, can die as the result of not playing. Brown relates a study (at 11:30 in the video) which demonstrates that.

He points out that the basis of human trust is established through play signals. He defines neoteny, a word unfamiliar to most of us. It’s the retention of immature tendencies into adulthood, and it can be beneficial.

Criminal behavior has been a part of Brown’s research. He relates that many violent criminals have been found to have lived lives devoid of play. Kevin Caroll wrote a book (described at 15:10 in the video) about coming from a dreary childhood. He discovered that watching others play boosted his spirits. Following up on that, he made a productive life out of a situation that otherwise would have led to no good.

At 17:30 in the video, Brown recommends we all examine our lives. He suggests recalling something as far back as we can remember that’s big-time playful. Replaying such an experience can help you relate to your “fun side”. Among other things it will improve your creativity.

At 18:40 we begin hearing about an experiment with students playing with play. Among other things they explore how to make meetings more interesting. He suggests that all activity can be infused with play. Then there’s no need to stop working to play. Enjoy whatever you do. Have fun with it!

Writing these letters does that for me. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy writing them! This writing is a highlight of my week.

A few months ago I wrote about the value of taking a break after a period of intense work. Today’s discussion of intentional play takes this conversation to another level. Taking a break is important. Perhaps with Brown’s advice we can incorporate fun with work, and with rest.

Note: Archived issues of The Unity Community are available here

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