Play It Again and Again

how play it shapes the brain
Stuart Brown, author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (find it on Amazon), illustrates just how useful it can be, even to one’s own survival. In the opening chapter of his book, Brown recounts an incident witnessed in the wilderness of the Canadian far north:

Hudson seemed to be a very dead dog. That’s what musher Brian La Doone thought as he watched a twelve-hundred-pound polar bear quickstep across the snowfield, straight toward the sled dogs that were staked away from his camp.”

Brown goes on to explain how Hudson, a six-year-old Canadian Eskimo sled dog, “didn’t bark or flee. Instead, he wagged his tail and bowed, a classic play signal. To La Doone’s astonishment, the bear responded to the dog’s invitation. Bear and sled dog began a playful romp in the snow, both opening their mouths without baring their teeth, with ‘soft’ eye contact and flattened hair instead of raised hackles—all signals that each was not a threat.”

To give you a visual of this remarkable situation and to hone his point, this portion of Stuart Brown’s Ted Talk, Play is Fundamental shows how the distinct differential in power between these two creatures, one domesticated and one wild, was overridden through play.

In Brown’s book, you can read of ravens who slide down snow banks and bison who glide across frozen lakes. You can read the research of romping, fun-filled playtime and glean knowledge of its relevant benefits:

  • Accessing a sort of magic in play,
  • Transforming ourselves through play,
  • Bringing a sense of excitement and adventure back into life,
  • Engaging more fully with our world,
  • Enlarging and activating the executive functions of the brain,
  • Assisting in processing emotions while increasing Emotional Intelligence,
  • Extending one’s life,
  • Increasing one’s capacity for judgment and trust,
  • Employing a penalty-free rehearsal for give-and-take interactions,
  • Allowing us to create imaginative new cognitive combinations, which enrich both creativity and problem solving functions,
  • And, most notably, eliciting pleasure.

It is this last point that I find quite profound. I believe when we feel healthy doses of wholesome pleasure through play-filled movement, we can more easily align with personal core truths or values. In such close encounters, we experience both our own power and own grace.