Play: How It Shapes the Brain and Opens the Imagination

Play: How It Shapes the Brain and Opens the Imagination

Very often in these monthly e-newsletters, I write about books recently published, sometimes even pre-published, that I think offer amazing resources for recovering resilience:

Jan. 2015 The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and at Work by Christine Carter, published that month

Feb. 2015 The Upside Side of Your Dark Side by Todd Kashdan, published in September 2015

May 2015 Upside: The New Science of Post-Traumatic Growth by Jim Rendon, published in August 2015

June 2015 The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge, published in January 2015

Sept. 2015 Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs by Michaela Haas, published in October 2015

Nov. 2015 Self-Compassion and Psychotherapy by Tim Desmond, published in November 2015

This month’s newsletter focuses on Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown, which was a national bestseller when it was first published in 2009. I discovered this wonderful resource just last month, as I was embarking on a home remodel project that I knew would drown me in details and drudgery if I didn’t find a way to be playful with it.

Stuart Brown is a medical doctor, psychiatrist, clinical researcher, and founder of the National Institute of Play. Even though I’ve just discovered his book, Dr. Brown has been researching play in people and animals for his entire career and developed a three-part series on PBS about The Promise of Play. The book Play distills decades of research into several key concepts:

Play is a biological process evolved over millions of years in animals and humans to promote survival; it socializes us to get along with others; we learn to navigate our world and adapt to it. The urge to play precedes the development of consciousness and language; it lightens us up, eases our burdens, and dissolves tensions and worry. It restores our natural optimism and opens us up to new possibilities. It shapes the brain and makes us smarter and more adaptable. It energizes and enlivens us. Play fosters empathy and sustainable relationships; it lies at the core of creativity and innovation. It’s a catalyst for all that we would name as civilized. As Stuart Brown says, “We are designed to find fulfillment and creative growth through play.”

As we move into the year-end holiday season that can provide its own full measure of hustle-bustle and stress, it might be useful to remember how to – and give ourselves permission to – allow play to ease tensions and keep the mind and heart open to possibilities and genuine love for our fellow man.

May these reflections and exercises prove useful to you and yours.


What counts as play is different for every individual – gardening, bungee-jumping, watching a baseball game, playing baseball, teaching a kid to play baseball – all different.

According to Dr. Brown’s research, play seems to have these elements in common:

*Play is voluntary – not obligatory or required by duty.

*Play is inherently attractive – play is fun and we feel good when we play.

*Play is apparently purposeless – play doesn’t necessarily lead to anything practical (though it could).

*Play is done for its own sake. (Which is why we can so easily think of play as a “waste of time.”

*Play creates flow: we lose our sense of time and even our sense of self and don’t even care that we do.

*Play includes improvisation, spontaneity, and surprise that very often lead to new insights, new behaviors, new ways of being and doing.

*Play is intrinsically rewarding; it’s so enjoyable we want to continue, and we want to return.

Some of the research findings about the brain on play:

“Most well-established research findings show that play is crucial to healthy brain development. 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.”

My understanding of some of research reported in Play: The brain doesn’t follow a pre-fabricated blueprint for maturing itself (though of course information encoded in our DNA gives basic guidelines). The brain manufactures far more neurons than it needs for basic functioning and then creates far more connections among those neurons than it needs. As the brain “learns” what works, it strengthens the connections that work and weakens or eliminates those that don’t. This process of neural evolution continues throughout life.

Sleep and dreams appear to be organizers of higher brain functioning, testing and strengthening these brain circuits. Play takes this process of neural evolution even one step further. Play promotes the creation of new connections that didn’t exist before, new connections between neurons and between disparate brain centers. In playing we foster the creation of those new circuits and test them by running signals through them. During play, the brain is making sense of itself through simulation and testing.

In play, most of the time we are able to try out things without threatening our physical or emotional well-being. Because play is a nonessential activity, this testing is done safely, when survival is not at stake. We are safe precisely because we are just playing. Play activity is actually helping to sculpt the brain in a safe and necessary way. In fact, play seems to be a driving force in sculpting how the brain continues to grow and develop.

“For humans, creating such simulations of life may be play’s most valuable benefit. In play we can imagine and experience situations we have never encountered before and learn from them. We can create possibilities that have never existed but may in the future. We make new cognitive connections that find their way into our everyday lives. We can learn lessons and skills without being directly at risk.

“So how do we create these simulations? Through watching and engaging in sports, physical activities, books, storytelling, art movies, and much, much more. By living through Rick and Ilsa’s doomed romance in Casablanca, we learn a little bit about love and how to live our lives with honor and a sense of irony when love is lost. When we really get into following the victories and defeats of a favorite football team, we learn about perseverance and how to argue with our friends (about who is the best quarterback, for instance) in a constructive way. When we experience a new physical challenge like learning to ski, we may find that the things we learn on the slopes – like avoiding falling by keeping our weight forward and committing to the turn – may come to mind during business negotiations as important reminders to press forward and commit to the deal – or fail.

“Imagine a three-year-old child sitting on the floor, playing with a stuffed animal, talking to it in various voices. This child is forming neural connections that make more and more sense as they are added to the growing body of stored, mapped information. The very rich connections among the brain’s maps are reciprocal and may involve millions of fibers. The interconnecting and dynamic maps may be most effectively enriched and shaped by the states of play.

Close examination of adult internal narratives (our stream of consciousness) reveals something similar. Our adult imaginations are also continually active, predicting the future and examining the consequences of our behavior before it takes place. Just as in children, adult streams of consciousness are enriched thought the simulations of childlike imaginative play. We all daydream about events in our future – even if we are not consciously aware of it. These thoughts leave an imprint on our brains. The genius of play is that, in playing, we create imaginative new cognitive combinations. And in creating those novel combinations, we find what works.”

Jaak Panksepp, a renowned researcher on animal play, has also shown that active play selectively stimulates brain-derived neurotrophic factor (which stimulates nerve growth) in the amygdala (where emotions get processed) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (where executive decisions are processed).

John Byers, animal play researcher, discovered that the amount of play is correlated to the development of the brain’s frontal cortex, which is the 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 amount of play is tied to the rate and size of growth of the cerebellum, responsible for attention, language processing, sensing musical rhythm.

In other studies of mammals that ranged from dogs to dolphins, researchers found that the species with the larger brains (compared with body size) played a lot and the species with smaller brains played less.

Dr. Brown has also identified 8 different “play personalities” that describe styles of play common among adults, acknowledging that we may shift or evolve from one to another depending on the circumstances in our life and the people around us.

Play Personalities:

The Joker: where play revolves around nonsense and practical jokes.

The Kinesthete: where play involves movement like sports or dance, but not necessarily competition.

The Explorer: whether physical – going new places, or emotional – deepening into feelings, or mental – reading and researching

The Competitor: playing to win, whether solitary or social, participating or watching; business, too

The Director: where play involves organizing and planning

The Collector: collecting anything – concrete objects or experiences

The Artist/Creator: Making things, anything, sometimes for profit, often not, sometimes for others, often not

The Storyteller: where play is imaginative and narrative

In the Exercises to Practice below, you’ll find Dr. Brown’s suggestions for taking your play history that may help you identifying which play styles best suit you as you move through your daily life.

Dr. Brown also applies what he’s learned about how to have a playful life to parenthood, the work world, intimate relationships and the larger world. It is NOT TOO LATE to learn how to play, and it is not too late to read this book to help give yourself permission to.


I can create a thousand PowerPoint sides chock-full of diagrams, charts, and definitions, but there is no way to really understand play without also remembering the feeling of play. If we leave the emotion of play out of the science, it’s like throwing a dinner party and serving pictures of food. The guests can understand all they care to about how the food looks and hear descriptions of how the food tastes, but until they put actual food in their mouths, they won’t really appreciate what the meal is all about.

I’ve sometimes found that just a few slides of kids playing hopscotch, or a cat playing with string, or dogs playing fetch, creates more recognition and understanding than all the statistical analysis in the world.
– Stuart Brown, M.D.

* * * * *

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father.
– Roger von Oech

* * * * *

Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.
– Abraham Maslow

* * * * *

Deep play precedes deep work.
– Jeremy Rifkin

* * * * *

The dynamic principle of fantasy is play, which belongs also to the child, and as such it appears to be inconsistent with the principle of serious work. But without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable. Without playing with fantasy, no creative work has yet come into being.
– Carl G. Jung

* * * * *

As children, our reward to play is strong because we need it to help generate a rapidly developing brain. As adults, the brain is not developing as rapidly and the play drive may not be as strong, so we can do well enough without play in the short term. Our work or other responsibilities often demand we set play aside. But when play is denied over the long term, our mood darkens. We lose our sense of optimism and we become anhedonic, or incapable of feeling sustained pleasure.

There is laboratory evidence that there is a play deficit much like that well-documented sleep deficit. And just as a sleep deficit generates a need for extra “rebound” sleep to catch up, laboratory research shows that animals that are deprived of play will engage in “rebound” play when allowed to do so again. While we don’t have statistical evidence that the same happens in humans, anecdotal evidence from parents and teachers, as well as data gathered in may adult play histories I’ve conducted, indicate that humans also feel a much more intense desire to play when they have gone a long time without it.
– Stuart Brown, M.D.

* * * * *

[Talking about his first computer] Like all kids we not only fooled around with our toys, we changed them. If you’ve ever watch a child with a cardboard carton and a box of crayons create a spaceship with cool control panels, or listened to their improvised rules, such as “Red cars can jump all others,” then you know that this impulse to make a toy do more is at the heart of innovative childhood play. It is also the essence of creativity.
– Bill Gates

* * * * *

Blaise Pascal used to mark with charcoal the walls of his playroom, seeking a means of making a circle perfectly round and a triangle whose sides and angle were all equal. He discovered these things for himself and then began to seek the relationship which existed between them. He did not know any mathematical terms and so he made up his own. Using these names he made axioms and finally developed perfect demonstrations, until he had come to the thirty-second proposition of Euclid.
– C. M. Cox

* * * * *

With enough play, the brain works better. We feel more optimistic and more creative. We revel in novelties – a new fashion, a new car, a new joke. And through our embrace of the new we are attracted to situations that test skills we do not need now, but may need in the future. We find ourselves saying, “I did it just for the heck of it, but it turned out to be good for me.

In an unpredictable, changing world, what we learn from playing can be transferred into other novel contexts. We seek out a variety of new contingencies through play, allowing us to thrive anywhere in the world. The first steam engine was a toy. So were the first airplanes. Darwin got curious about evolution initially through collecting samples from the seaside and garden where he played as a kid. Throwing stones likely led to the first projectiles, and perhaps the first spear. Fireworks in China preceded the cannon. As I muse on this, I think that math likely came via play with numbers. Wind-up toys led to the development of clocks.

When we are not up against life or death trial and error brings out new stuff. We want to do this stuff not because we think that paper airplanes will lead to 747s. We do it because it’s fun. And many years later, the 747 is born.
– Stuart Brown, M.D.

* * * * *

The path that is best for you is the path that keeps the best of you in play.
– Bernie DeKoven

* * * * *

[In conversation with Bob Fagen, world expert on animal play behavior, watching two juvenile grizzly bears playing with each other on Alaska’s Admiralty Island]

SB: Bob, why do these bears play?

BF: after some hesitation, without looking up, Because it’s fun.

SB: No, Bob, I mean from a scientific point of view, what do they play?

BF: Why do they play? Why do birds sing, people dance – for the…pleasure of it.

SB: Bob, you have degrees from Harvard and MIT, and an in-depth knowledge of bears. You’re a student of evolution, you’ve written the definitive work on all mammals at play – I know you have more opinions about this. Tell, why do animals play?

BF: after a long, tolerant silence, during which I felt as if he were a sensitive artist having to explain a sublime painting to a tasteless dolt, he relented and answered reluctantly, In a world continuously presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, play prepares these bears for an evolving planet.


Dr. Brown recounts the story, recounted by Sir Ken Robinson in Epiphany about how people find their path in life, of Gillian Lynne, choreographer for the musicals Cats and Phantom of the Opera.

Lynne grew up in 1930’s Britain, did terribly in school because she was always fidgeting and never paying attention to lessons. ADHD was probably what people would have assumed, but the diagnosis wasn’t available then.

School officials told Lynne’s parents that she was mentally disabled. Lynne and her mother went to see a specialist, who talked to Gillian about school while she sat on her hands, trying not to fidget. After twenty minutes, the doctor asked to speak to Lynne’s mother alone in the hallway. As they were leaving the office, the doctor flipped on the radio, and when they were shut in the hallway the doctor pointed through the window back into the office. He directed the mother’s attention to Gillian, who had gotten up and started moving to the music as soon as they left. The doctor said, “Mrs. Lynne, Your daughter’s not sick, she’s a dancer.”

The doctor recommended enrolling Gillian in dance school. When Gillian got there, she was delighted to find a whole room of people like herself. People who had to move to think. Lynne went on to become a principal dancer in the Royal Ballet, then founded her own dance company and eventually began with Andrew Lloyd Webber and other producers.

Gillian Lynne is someone who helped put together some of the most successful musical productions in history, has given pleasure to millions, and is a multimillionaire. Robinson said in his recounting, “of course if she were a child now, someone would probably put her on drugs and tell her to calm down.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Play is incredibly pervasive in the animal kingdom. Play-fighting is common especially in social mammals and smart birds. Among leopards, wolves, hyenas, rats, cats, and dogs, tussling is simply part of growing up. But there are also a number of animals that seem to play well into adulthood. Adult ravens have been observed sliding down a snowy slope on their back, flying back to the top and sliding down again. Bison will repeatedly run onto a frozen lake and slide on all fours while trumpeting exultantly. Hippos in the water will do backflips over and over again.

[and this one particular example:]

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. That November, the polar bears in the Canadian far north were hungry. The sea had not yet froze, denying the bears access to the seals that they hunted from the ice. La Doone spend much of his life in the polar bear’s territory, and judging from the appearance of this particular bear, he knew it had not eaten in months. With a skill-crushing bite or a swipe of its massive claws, the bear could easily rip open one of his dogs within seconds.

But Hudson had other things in mind. Hudson was a six-year-old Canadian Eskimo sled dog; one of La Doone’s more rambunctious pack members. As the polar bear closed in, Hudson 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 signaling that each was not a threat.

In retrospect, the play signals began, even before the two came together. The bear approached Hudson in a loping way. His movements were curvilinear instead of aggressively straightforward. When predators stalk, they stare had at their prey and spring directly at it. The bear and the dog were exchanging play signals with these sorts of curving movements as the bear approached.

The two wrestled and rolled around so energetically that at one point the bear had to lie down, belly up: a universal sign in the animal kingdom for a time-out. At another point during their romp, the bear paused to envelope Hudson in an affectionate embrace.

After fifteen minutes, the bear wandered away, still hungry but seemingly sated by this much-needed dose of fun. La Doone couldn’t believe what he’d just witnessed, and yet he was even more astonished when the same bear returned the next day around the same time for another round of frolicking with Hudson. By the third day, La Doone’s colleagues had heard about this interspecies wrestling match and this campsite was filled with visitors eager to catch a glimpse of the two new best friends. Every night for a week, the polar bear and Hudson met for a playdate. Eventually, the ice on the bay thickened enough for the famished but entertained polar bear to return to his hunting grounds for seal.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

One biologist who studied river otters decided to train some of them to swim through a hoop by offering a food reward for completing the task. Shortly after the otters learned to do this, the animals started introducing their own twists to the task. They swam through the hoop backward and waited to see if they got a reward. They swam through and then turned around and swam back through the other way. They swam halfway through and stopped. After each variation, they waited expectantly to see if this version of the task would earn a reward or not.

Through their behavior, the otters were testing the system. They were learning the rules of the game, the rules that govern their world. This was not a thought-out strategy. Otters are naturally extremely playful and are always attracted to new and interesting things. Their natural search for novelty and avoidance of boredom leads them to try the task a number of different ways. By having fun and mixing it up, the otters were learning far more about the way their world works than if they had simply performed the initial task flawlessly. It’s a lesson we all could learn. The biologist ruefully noted that he had been trying for years to get his graduate students to use such playful investigation rather than rote learning and mechanical thinking in their research.


Take Your Play History

The primary purpose of the play history is to get us back in touch with the joy that we have all experienced at some point in our lives. Find that joy from the past and you are halfway to learning how to create it again in your present life. It also can be a guide to free-flowing empowerment by identifying natural talents that may be dormant or that may have been bypassed.

This is not a quiz. It is not a test. The play history is a journey through your past and present. It is a time machine, a screen that will show you things you may never have seen clearly, or remind you of things you have long forgotten. Many people find that it brings up more questions than it gives answers. One of its goals is to create a general mental pictures of your play attitudes, and color them with emotion-laden scenes. Your current feelings about people, things, and activities are rooted in the emotions you have previously experienced and forgot in the natural amnesia of early life.

Start this exercise by spending some time thinking about what you did as a child that really got you excited, that really gave you joy. Was it reading comic books? Building a tree house? Making stuff with Mom or Dad? Did you like doing this with other people, or in solitary? Or both? Were the things that really fueled you more mental or physical? Try to remember the feeling that you had, and recapture it. As part of this remembrance if visual images spring to your mind’s eye, amplify them, let you associations to them flow. To what or to whom do you attach your unalloyed feelings?

Some people have a hard time remembering what they did for play, and even more have difficulty remembering the activity in enough detail that they can really re-experience the feeling it gave them. It’s not easy, but it’s worth putting in the time to do so. Understand what your unique play temperament is, and how it has manifested itself as you have matured. Then start to identify what you could do in your current life that might let you re-create that playful feeling. Identify activities that fit with cultural norms and your play personality.

Reject judgmental or skeptical thoughts as this exercise moves along. Inventory the whole of your life, with an eye toward play, and look for ways that accentuate joy. Here are some initial questions:

When have you felt free to do and be what you choose?

Is that a part of your life now? If not, why not?

What do you feel stands in the way of your achieving some times of personal freedom?

Are you now able to feel that what engages you most fully is almost effortless? If not, can you recall when you were able to experience such times? Describe. Imagine settings that allow that sort of engagement.

Search your memory for those times in your life when you have been at your very best. These are usually authentic play times, and give clues as to where to go for current play experiences.

What have been the impediments to play in your life?

How and why did some kinds of play disappear from your repertoire?

Have you discovered ways of reinitiating lost play that work for you now in your life?

Are you able to imagine and feel that the things you most desire and enjoy are really the things that you ought to have? Why so, or why not?

How free are you now as you play with your spouse or your family? Or do you treat them as an extension of a dutiful responsibility?

Look at your job and what parts mesh well with the person you are. If your work is not satisfying or you are contemplating a major change in your job, be honest about whether it is the right one for you. Have you been able to imagine yourself functioning more joyfully in another setting? This exploration doesn’t require immediate practicality or reality. After all, as a kid, your fantasies and pretend stream of consciousness is what added richness to your mental repertoire. The same mechanisms still can be activated, and your brain will ultimately help shape these imaginative flights of fancy to fit what is actually possible. But that doesn’t happen without the emotions associated with a “state” of play.


Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown, M.D. New York: Penguin Group, 2010.