The biological importance of play

“...play is a tremendously powerful force throughout nature. In the end, it is largely responsible for our existence as sentient, intelligent creatures.” ~ Stuart Brown (p.24)

Explaining the importance of play, Stuart Brown describes play as “a force that has been built into us through millions of years of evolution.” (p.13)

Brown writes that he has “studied a range of people from all walks of life – from murderers to business people, socialites, scientists, artists, and even Nobel Prize winners – and systematically mapped how their unique ‘play histories,’ a careful review of the role of play in childhood and adulthood, affected their life course. On one end of the spectrum, I studies murderers in Texas prisons and found that the absence of play in their childhood was as important as any other single factor in predicting their crimes. On the other end, I also documented abused kids at risk for antisocial behavior whose predilection for violence was diminished through play.” (p.26)

Brown places play, as a behaviour, in a biological and evolutionary context and draws on the work and experience of Bob Fagen to do so. Together with Fagen, Brown describes watching two grizzly bears at play. He asked Fagen why they play, to which Fagen replied “Because it’s fun.” (p.28) After pushing for a more scientific response, Fagen (relunctantly) offered Brown this reason: “In a world continuously presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, play prepares these bears for an evolving planet.”  (p.29)

“Play is incredibly pervasive in the animal kingdom,” Brown explains (p.29) and points out that “Other researchers and I used to think that play was found only in mammals, birds, and some reptiles, not lower orders. But animal-play researchers have established specific criteria that define play behavior, and it seems that the farther down the evolutionary ladder they look, they still find it.” (p.30)

“…one of the hallmarks of play is that it appears purposeless. But the pervasiveness of play throughout nature argues that the activity must have some purpose after all. Animals don’t have much leeway for wasteful behaviors. Most live in demanding environments in which they have to compete to find food, compete with other species, and compete to mate successfully. Why would they waste time and energy in nonproductive activity like play?” (p.30)

“As a scientist, I know that a behavior this pervasive throughout human culture and across the evolutionary spectrum most likely has a survival value. Otherwise, it would have been eliminated through natural selection.” (p.31)

“In fact, play can be scientifically proven to be useful. After carefully documenting the play behavior of the Alaskan grizzlies over more than fifteen years, the Fagens analyzed the results and were able to differentiate play from all other behaviors…. they found that the bears that played the most were the ones who survived best. This is true despite the fact that playing takes away time, attention, and energy from activities like eating, which seem at first glance to contribute more to the bears’ survival.” (p.31)

One major theory is that play is simply practice for skills needed in the future. The idea is that when animals play-fight, they are practicing to fight or hunt for real later on. But it turns out that cats that are [-p.32] deprived of play-fighting can hunt just fine. What they can’t do – what they never learn to do – is to socialize successfully. Cats and other social mammals such as rats will, if seriously missing out on play, have an inability to clearly delineate friend from foe, miscue on social signaling, and either act excessively aggressive or retreat and not engage in more normal social patterns. In the give-and-take of mock combat, the cats are learning what Daniel Goleman calls emotional intelligence – the ability to perceive others’ emotional state, and to adopt an appropriate response.” (pp.31-32)

“Play lets animals learn about the environment and the rules of engagement with friend and foe. Playful interaction allows a penalty-free rehearsal of the normal give-and-take necessary in social groups.” (p.32)

“In humans, verbal jousting may take the place of physical rough-and-tumble play. kids at play can learn the difference between friendly teasing and mean-spirited taunting as they explore the boundaries between those two, and learn how to make up when the boundary is crossed.” (pp.32-33)

Animals that play a lot quickly learn how to navigate their world and adapt to it. In short, they are smarter.” (p.33)

John Byers, an animal play scholar interested in the evolution of play behavior… [-p.34] discovered …[that] the amount of play is correlated to the development of the brain’s frontal cortex, which is the important brain region responsible for much of what we call cognition: discriminating relevant from irrelevant information, monitoring and organizing our own thoughts and feelings, and planning for the future. In addition, the period of maximum play in each species is tied to the rate and size of growth of the cerebellum. This part of the brain lies in back of and below the main hemispheres, and contains more neurons than the whole rest of the brain. Its functions and connections were once thought to be primarily for coordination and motor control, but through new brain-imaging techniques researchers are finding that the cerebellum is responsible for key cognitive functions such as attention, language processing, sensing musical rhythm, and more.” (pp.33-34)

“What is the link between neural growth and play? Why do play activities seem to go hand in hand with brain development? What difference does play make? 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.” (p.40)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Stuart Brown (2009) Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Avery: New York

(NOTE: “Stuart Brown, MD, is a medical doctor, psychiatrist, and clinical researcher, and the founder of the National Institute for Play.”)

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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