Huberman Lab - Using Play to Rewire & Improve Your Brain

Welcome to the Huberman Lab Podcast,

where we discuss science

and science-based tools for everyday life.

I’m Andrew Huberman,

and I’m a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology

at Stanford School of Medicine.

Today, we are going to talk about the biology,

psychology, and utility of play.

Play is something that normally we associate

with children’s games, and indeed with being a child.

Much of our childhood development centers around play,

whether or not it’s organized play or spontaneous play.

But as adults, we also need to play.

And today I’m going to talk about what I like to refer to

as the power of play.

The power of play resides in play’s ability

to change our nervous system for the better

so that we can perform many activities,

not just play activities, better.

Play can also function as a way to explore new ways

of being in different scenarios,

in work, in relationships, in settings of all kinds,

and indeed also in the relationship to oneself.

In fact, we are going to explore

how assuming different identities

during the same game of play or the same forms of play

has been shown to be immensely powerful

for allowing people to engage in more creative thinking

and dynamic thinking, and indeed to become better leaders

and more effective workers and students and learners

and happier people.

I’m also going to cover some data that shows

that learning to play properly

can enhance one’s ability to focus

and is an active area of research

for treatment of things like ADHD,

attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Just as a little sneak preview of where that’s headed,

children who do not access enough play

during certain stages of childhood

are more prone to develop ADHD.

The good news is all of us,

regardless of whether or not we have ADHD or not,

whether or not we had ample access to play

during childhood or not,

can engage and grow the neural circuits

that allow for this incredible power of play.

And this can be done, again, at any stage of life.

Today, we’re going to talk about the protocols, the science.

We will review all of that,

and I promise you’ll come away with a lot of knowledge.

Whether or not you’re a parent,

whether or not you’re a child,

whether or not you’re a person of any age,

you’re going to have tools and knowledge

that will benefit you.

Before we begin, I want to share with you the results

of what I think to be an extremely exciting

and certainly an actionable study

that was just published in the journal Scientific Reports.

This is an excellent journal, Nature Press Journal,

peer-reviewed, et cetera.

And the findings center around what sorts of devices

we happen to be reading on and accessing information on

and how that’s impacting our physiology

and our capacity to learn.

One of the more frequent questions I get

is what are all these devices, phones, tablets, computers,

video games, et cetera, doing to our brains?

And finally, there’s some good peer-reviewed data

to look at that and to address it directly.

This study, first author Honma, H-O-N-M-A, Honma et al,

is entitled Reading on a Smartphone Affects Psi Generation,

that’s S-I-G-H, Psi Generation,

Brain Activity and Comprehension.

And to just summarize what they found,

they ran a study on 34 healthy individuals

and had them either read material on a smartphone

or on regular printed paper or a book.

And what they found is that comprehension on devices,

in particular smartphones, is much poorer,

much worse than it is when one reads on actual paper.

Now, some of you may experience this yourselves.

Now, they compared smartphones with paper

and what they found was that

when they looked at people’s breathing,

the normal patterns of breathing

that people were engaging in did not differ

between people reading on a smartphone

or reading from paper.

However, one particular feature of breathing did differ.

And that particular feature

is what we call physiological size.

I’ve talked a lot about physiological size on this podcast

and on social media.

We had a terrific guest, Professor Jack Feldman

from University of California, Los Angeles,

who’s a world expert in breathing and respiration

and its impacts on the brain

and how brain controls breathing and respiration.

And what you can learn from that episode,

or I’ll just tell you again right now,

is that every five minutes or so,

whether or not we are asleep or awake,

we do what’s called a physiological sigh,

which is a big, deep inhale,

often a double inhale followed by a long exhale.

It goes something like this.

Now, you might think, oh, I never breathe like that,

but you do.

Unless there’s something severely wrong

with your brainstem, every five minutes or so,

you do one of these physiological sighs,

which reopens all the little hundreds of millions

of sacs in your lungs called the alveoli

that bring in more oxygen as a consequence

of that big, deep double inhale.

And then you are able to exhale carbon dioxide,

offload carbon dioxide through that long exhale.

I’ve also encouraged people

to use the physiological sigh deliberately,

not just spontaneously,

as a way to reduce their stress quickly.

And indeed, my lab works on physiological sighs

and has been exploring this.

And they’re quite effective

in reducing our stress very fast.

Reading on a smartphone seems to suppress

physiological sighing.

People aren’t aware that it’s happening,

but it’s happening.

Some people have talked about so-called email apnea,

which is the fact that people hold their breath

while they email or while they text.

And indeed, many people do that.

This is distinct from email or texting apnea.

What’s happening here is people are reading on the phone

and for whatever reason,

and I’ll talk about what the likely reason is,

but for whatever reason, they’re suppressing their sighing.

And as a consequence, the brain is not getting enough oxygen

and is not offloading enough carbon dioxide.

And another finding in this study

was that the prefrontal cortex,

an area of the brain that’s involved in focus

and attention and learning,

becomes hyperactive in a kind of desperate attempt to focus.

All of this can be summarized by saying,

if you happen to read on a device,

whether or not it’s a tablet,

a standard computer screen of any kind,

but in particular on a smartphone,

regardless of how small or large that smartphone screen is,

you want to remind yourself to engage

in these physiological sighs fairly regularly.

And it might even be better to just read the most

or at least the key issues

and things that you’re trying to learn

about the key information from paper,

either books or printed out material of some other sort.

What’s the underlying mechanism here?

Well, one of the reasons I like this study so much

is that it brings together two of my laboratories

and my particular interests in neuroscience,

which is how does our visual system and the aperture,

meaning the size of our visual window,

relate to our so-called autonomic function

or our internal state.

And basically what’s happening here

is as any of us bring our visual window in more narrowly,

as we contract our visual window,

which is exactly what happens

when we’re looking at a little smartphone in front of us,

it seems to suppress the breathing apparatus

because we know that physiological size

are controlled by a specific set of neurons

in the brainstem called the parafacial nucleus

discovered by Dr. Jack Feldman.

And so there must be a mechanism

whereby when we tighten our visual window,

we somehow, and we don’t know yet how this happens,

but somehow suppress the activity of these neurons

in the parafacial nucleus

that generate this physiological size.

So again, you have two choices,

or I suppose you have many choices,

but two main choices to contend with this new information.

One is that you remind yourself to engage in deep breathing

and in particular physiological size

every five minutes or so

while reading anything or texting on your smartphone.

The other would be, again,

if there’s material that you really need to learn

for sake of regurgitation later

or for something particularly important,

try and read that from either a larger screen

or even better would be from printed materials or books.

Another reason I bring all that up

is that it relates to a larger theme,

which is that I get many, many questions about ADHD

and about people’s challenges with focus.

And much of what we’re told these days

is that we are challenged with focus

because of the hundreds of videos

that we can see streaming by us in any moment on our phone,

which probably is true.

The fact that the information that we’re reading

on the internet and on our phones

is emotionally disturbing or distressing in some way.

And that probably is true as well in many cases.

This study really points to the fact

that independent of the information

that we are looking at or consuming,

independent whether or not it’s movies or texts

or anything of that sort,

the mere size of the window, the aperture,

the screen that we’re looking at

is also strongly impacting our ability

to learn and remember information.

So broaden that visual window, print things out,

look at a book.

I didn’t design the system.

I always say, you know,

however our visual system and respiratory system

happened to evolve,

I wasn’t consulted at the design phase.

This is just simply how your brain circuits work.

So if you want to learn things,

widen that visual window and even better print things out,

pick up a book or read on a tablet even,

but try and make that tablet larger

than a smartphone screen size.

Before we begin our discussion about the power of play,

I’d like to emphasize that this podcast is separate

from my teaching and research roles at Stanford.

It is however, part of my desire and effort

to bring zero cost to consumer information about science

and science related tools to the general public.

In keeping with that theme,

I’d like to thank the sponsors of today’s podcast.

Our first sponsor is Athletic Greens.

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I’ve done a couple of episodes now

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Let’s talk about play.

Now, in researching this episode,

I thought that I was going to come across a bunch of papers

that say this brain area connects to that brain area,

which controls play in animals,

and there’s similar areas in babies and in adults,

and indeed that’s true,

and we will talk about brain circuitry.

But I think more importantly is to understand

what is the utility of play?

You know, why do we play when we’re younger?

Why do we tend to play less as we get older?

And what in the world is play for?

Some of us would be categorized as more playful.

I’m sure that you know people like this.

Maybe you are like this,

people that can walk into a room,

a social setting of any kind,

and they seem to already kind of have a playful,

maybe even a mischievous quality about them.

We’ll talk about mischief a little bit later,

but they sort of look at an environment or a social setting

as an opportunity for different kinds of novel interactions.

Other people,

and I’d probably put myself into this category,

if I walk into a novel environment,

I tend to be more in the mode of just assessing

what that environment is like.

I’m not a particularly spontaneously playful person,

although around certain individuals,

I might be more spontaneously playful.

We are all on a continuum of this kind of seriousness

to playful nature.

Turns out that all young animals, including humans,

have more playfulness and tend to engage

in more spontaneous play in their earlier years

than in their later years.

And therein lies a very interesting portal

to understanding what the utility,

what the purpose of play is.

First of all,

I want to lay down a couple of key facts about play

that point to the fact that play is not just about games.

Play is about much, much more.

And play, and in particular, how we played as a child,

and still how we can play as adults,

is really how we test and expand our potential roles

in all kinds of interactions.

One of the most important, interesting,

and surprising features of play

that I’d like everyone to know about

is that it is homeostatically regulated.

Some of you are familiar with the term homeostasis.

Homeostasis is just this aspect of biological systems

that tend to try and remain in balance.

You know, if you stay awake for a long period of time,

you tend to want to sleep for a long period of time.

If you slept for a long period of time

and you’re very rested,

then you tend to be very energetic the next day.

And of course I know people out there will immediately say,

oh, well, if I sleep too long,

then I’m groggy the next day.

Of course there are exceptions.

But in general,

sleep and wakefulness are in homeostatic balance.

Thirst and water consumption are in homeostatic balance.

If you don’t drink any fluids for a while,

you tend to get more thirsty.

You drink fluids and your thirst tends to diminish.

Likewise with food,

likewise with most all motivated behaviors.

Well, one of the most important discoveries

of the last century

was largely the work of a guy named Jaak Pengsepp.

No, it’s not Jack, it’s Jaak Pengsepp,

who really pioneered this understanding

of the biology of play

and relating that to the psychology of play

in animals and humans.

He’s considered a kind of luminary in the field of play.

And what a great title to have, right?

If you could have a title and be a scientific luminary,

you might as well be the play guy.

In fact, he was known,

and I’ll get into this later as to why,

but he was known as the rat tickler

because he tickled rats.

And he actually found that rodents

and animals of many kind

generate laughter in response to tickling.

And in fact, they don’t have the capacity

to tickle themselves,

something we’ll also talk about why that is.

And he was called the rat tickler,

but then he discovered that many species of animals

engage in laughter in response to tickling

and that they tickle each other.

And the reason you don’t hear them laughing,

no, you can’t hear your dog laughing,

that isn’t laughing, it’s something else,

is that most animals besides humans

laugh at kind of ultrasonic levels of auditory output,

meaning the frequencies of sound

are just too high for you to hear.

But with the appropriate devices,

he was able with his colleagues

to isolate the so-called the rat laughter.

And then it turns out there’s kitten laughter

and there’s puppy laughter.

And of course there’s human laughter.

So Jaak Pengsepp was a very interesting

and pioneering person in this field.

And he also discovered

that play is homeostatically regulated,

meaning if animals, including children,

are restricted from playing for a certain amount of time,

they will play more when given the opportunity.

In the same way that if I food restrict you

for a long period of time,

you will eat more when you are finally allowed to eat.

And this is important because it moves this thing

that we call play from the dimension

of higher order functions

or things that evolved recently,

that are really kind of at the front edge

of human evolution,

deeper into the circuitry of the brain,

whereby we say the brainstem,

the kind of ancient parts of the brain

are going to be involved.

And in fact, that’s the case.

As we’re going to learn later in the podcast,

play is generated through the connectivity

of many brain areas.

But one of the key brain areas is an area called PAG,

periaqueductal gray.

The periaqueductal gray is a brainstem area.

So it’s pretty far back as the brain kind of transitions

into the spinal cord.

And it’s rich with neurons that make endogenous opioids.

So these are not the kinds of opioids

that are causing the opioid crisis.

These are neurons that you and I all have

that release endogenous,

meaning self-made or biologically made opioids.

They go by names like enkephalin and things of that sort.

Play evokes small amounts of opioid release into the system.

They kind of dope you up a little bit,

not so much as one would see

if one were to take exogenous opioids.

And in fact, exogenous opioids, as we now know,

are potentially very hazardous,

highly high addiction potential, high overdose potential.

They cause all sorts of problems.

Yes, there are clinical uses for them,

but they’re causing a lot of problems nowadays.

But these endogenous opioids are released in children

and adults anytime we engage in play.

And that turns out to be a very important chemical state

because there’s something about having an abundance

of these endogenous opioids released into the brain

that allows other areas of the brain,

like the prefrontal cortex,

the area of the front that’s responsible

for what we call executive function.

Executive function is the ability to make predictions,

to assess contingencies.

Like if I do this, then that happens.

If I do that, then that happens.

Well, prefrontal cortex is often seen

as a kind of rigid executive of the whole brain.

That’s one way to view it,

but probably a better way to view it

is that the prefrontal cortex works in concert

with these other more primitive circuitries.

And when the periaqueductal gray releases

these endogenous opioids during play,

the prefrontal cortex doesn’t get stupid.

It actually gets smarter.

It develops the ability to take on different roles

and explore different contingencies.

And we’re going to talk about role play later

in different contexts.

And what we will find is that so much of play

is really about exploring things in a way

that feels safe enough to explore, right?

This is not what happens when we drive down the street

or when we bike down the street.

When we are headed to work,

commuting on our bicycle or walking or driving,

we tend to be very linear

and we tend to be very goal-directed.

We’re not going to just take a new street just because.

We’re not going to be spontaneously

riding in the middle of the road

and then on the sidewalk and then back and forth.

Although I can remember as a kid,

I was doing some of that.

I liked to jump off curb cuts when I was a kid.

And then eventually I graduated, sorry to the cyclist,

but I graduated to skateboarding.

And then I looked on skateboarding,

you’re always kind of exploring terrain.

But you know, as I got older,

actually I find myself becoming much more linear.

I just don’t play with my commute very much.

It’s really just about getting to work and then working.

When endogenous opioids are in our system,

when we were in this mode of play,

the prefrontal cortex starts seeing

and exploring many more possibilities

of how we interact with our environment,

with others and the roles that we can assume for ourselves.

And so we’re going to dissect one by one,

the different aspects of play, role play, social play,

individual play, imaginary play, competitive play.

There are enormous number of dimensions of play.

And by the end of this episode,

we’re going to arrive at a very key feature.

The key feature is one that’s called

your personal play identity.

All of us have what we call a personal play identity.

This personal play identity was laid down

during development.

And it is the identity that you assume in playful scenarios.

And it is the identity that you adopt

in non-playful scenarios.

The great news is that your personal play identity

is plastic throughout your entire lifespan.

You can adjust your personal play identity

in ways that will benefit you in work and relationships

and your overall level of happiness.

We will discuss protocols and ways to do that.

But I do want to give a nod to the late Jacques, excuse me,

Jacques Pengsepp, the rat tickler.

And I also want to just give a nod to play generally.

As we move forward in the discussion,

what I’d love for everyone to do

is to stop thinking about play as just a child activity,

not just a sport related activity,

but really as an exploration in contingencies.

Again, it’s an exploration of if I do A, what happens?

If I do B, what happens?

If someone else takes on behavior or attitude C,

what am I going to do?

And play is really where we can expand our catalog

of potential outcomes.

And it can be enormously enriching.

And indeed, as we’ll talk about the tinkerers of the world,

the true creatives,

the people that build incredible technologies and art,

and also they just have incredibly rich emotional

and intellectual and social lives,

all have a strong element of play.

And so today I hope to convince you of some protocols

that will allow you to expand your various roles in life

through the portal of play.

So we established that play is homeostatic,

meaning we all need to do it.

Many of us, including myself,

probably haven’t played that much as adults.

We’re all pretty busy.

A number of us are stressed.

We got a lot to do in life.

But as children, most all of us engage in a lot of play.

And in looking at the way that very young children

and especially toddlers play,

we can learn a lot because it reveals the fundamental rules

by which the toddler brain interacts with the world.

Now, one of the key things about the baby brain

is that the baby brain somehow knows

that it can’t do everything in the world, right?

If a baby needs something,

it generally will cry or make some sort of vocalization

or some sort of facial expression or combination of those.

And the caretaker, whoever that may be, will provide it.

This is an ancient hardwired mechanism

whereby the so-called autonomic nervous system

that generates stress will create this kind of whining

and discomfort, maybe a writhing,

maybe the baby gets kind of red in the face.

And the caretaker delivers something based on a good guess

of what that baby needs.

So maybe it’s breast milk, maybe it’s bottle milk,

maybe it’s a diaper change, maybe it’s to be warmed up

if the baby is cold, maybe it’s to be cooled down

if the baby’s too warm,

maybe if the baby’s in this little onesie thing,

it’s feeling restricted and it just wants to move

and they’ll get taken out of their crib or their stroller

or whatever it is and allowed to stretch out on the floor.

Remember, the baby doesn’t know exactly what it needs,

it only knows the state of discomfort.

And of course, we don’t know exactly what babies

and toddlers are thinking

because they can’t express themselves with language yet.

But what’s key to understand is the rule

or the contingency that is set up in that scenario.

In that scenario, the child feels some discomfort,

expresses that discomfort verbally

or through a facial expression or both,

and then some force,

some person from the outside world resolves it.

And so the very young baby and indeed many children

up to certain ages and let’s confess,

many adults are not able to meet

or adjust their internal states of stress

and so they look to things outside of them.

That’s the first rule, the fundamental rule

that we all learn when we come into life.

That when in a state of discomfort,

to look outside our immediate biology,

beyond the confines of our skin and find a solution.

A sip of water, for adults it might be a sip of alcohol.

Probably not the best tool to relieve stress,

but that’s one that many people do in fact engage in.

For the baby that’s hungry,

the bottle milk comes from the outside.

As we gain more proficiency in moving through life

and we can get things for ourselves,

we still often bring things from the external world in

to resolve this, what I’m calling autonomic discomfort

or autonomic dysregulation.

That’s not a game, but that’s a rule.

As we advance from infant to toddler,

we start to think more in terms of where we are

and what we own relative to what’s out there in the world.

And now in the world of child psychology,

there’s a somewhat famous poem

that was written by a research child psychologist.

His name was Burton White,

and he wrote a poem called the Toddler’s Creed.

The Toddler’s Creed defines well

what the rules and contingencies of play are

in very young children.

And it reveals to us just how narrow

and limited their worldview is

and how self-centered their world is.

So the Toddler’s Creed, read quickly,

because I don’t want to take up too much time with this,

is if I want it, it’s mine.

If I give it to you and change my mind later, it’s mine.

For anyone that’s played with a toddler,

you can imagine this in your mind.

If I can take it away from you, it’s mine.

If I had a little while ago, it’s mine.

If we are building something together,

all the pieces are mine.

If it looks just like mine, it’s mine.

If it’s mine, it will never belong to anyone else,

no matter what.

And of course, as we hear this, it sounds quite awful, right?

And yet this is actually a reflection

of what a healthy toddler would think about the world,

that the objects and things,

and even the people in the world are theirs,

that they are actually possessions that belong to them.

Now, of course, some people never actually transition

beyond this stage of moral and social development.

And there are indeed some adults

that fit the Toddler’s Creed,

and you’re welcome to share this with them

if ever you think that it might be of benefit

to their self-reflection.

But in all seriousness,

Burton White’s Toddler’s Creed is really grounded

in this transition from when we are infants,

and we have to have things delivered to us,

to the point where we are toddlers,

and we can access things in the world,

but we tend to assume that they are all ours.

And then the next stage is the really key stage

as it relates to play,

because in the next stage of development

is where young children start to interact

with other children, and there’s an exchange

and a possession, and then a letting go of certain things.

Learning that not everything is yours

and that the entire world is not about you

is one of the key contingencies

that is established during play.

It’s one of the key ways in which children go

from being very self-centered

and basically unable to engage with other kids for very long

without some sort of eruption of crying

and some sort of battle of kind of push-pull over an object

to things like sharing and things like cooperative play.

So as we transition from forms of play

that are all about the self,

that are all me, me, me, me, me, the toddler’s creed,

to forms of play that involve some discomfort

in assuming roles that maybe we don’t want

and not getting what we want,

it’s really an opportunity for the brain

to start to explore different roles that people take,

how they work as individuals and as pairs

and in larger groups,

and to do that in a low stakes environment, right?

You wouldn’t want this to be worked out on the battlefield

or when searching for food

or in some high stakes environment

where the survival of the species was important.

It appears that these circuitries for play evolved

so that rules and contingencies around who’s most important,

whether or not the group is important,

whether or not individuals are going to be leaders

or followers, et cetera,

that can be explored in a low stakes environment.

Now, there are hundreds of different types of play

and hundreds of different types of contingency testing,

but the key theme here is that play allows

children and adults for that matter,

to explore different outcomes

in a kind of low stakes environment.

If you’re playing a board game or a card game,

you might get really into that game,

but unless there’s a lot of money on the table,

so to speak,

or you’re really playing for something important,

or unless your ego is swollen

way out of proportion to reality,

if you lose, you might not feel good about it,

but it’s truly not the end of the world.

And if you win, you might feel really good about it,

but you’re not really incredible.

You were just incredible in that particular situation

for that particular moment.

It doesn’t really transform the rest of your life

unless that game is of a particular type,

but for sport, for instance,

we’ll talk about sport later.

So the key theme here is that play is contingency testing.

Play is contingency testing under conditions

where the stakes are sufficiently low

that individuals should feel comfortable

assuming different roles,

even roles that they’re not entirely comfortable with

in their outside life.

And that all relates again,

to the release of these endogenous opioids

in this brain center, periaqueductal gray,

and the way that it allows the prefrontal cortex

in a very direct way,

I mean, truly it allows it in a biological way

to expand the number of operations that it can run

and start thinking about,

oh, well, okay, normally I’m kind of a loner

and I like to read and work and hang out alone,

maybe even play alone,

but okay, I’ll play a board game

or a game of tennis where I have a partner

and we’re going to play as partners

against two other people.

Okay, that’s a little uncomfortable, but I’ll do it.

And in doing that,

you discover certain ways in which you are proficient

and certain ways in which you are less proficient.

You discover that the other person

actually tends to cheat a little bit,

or the other person is extremely rigid about the rules,

or maybe it was extremely rigid

about the way they organize their pieces on the board

or you’re crossing the line

into your side of the tennis court.

There are all sorts of things that we learn

in these rather low stakes scenarios.

That’s the key theme here.

So before I continue,

I just want to point to a tool that anyone can use,

but in particular, the less playful of the group.

And I would put myself into this category.

Again, I’m not somebody

who really engages in spontaneous play.

I enjoy sports, I enjoy exercise,

but that is distinct from play

because the sports and exercise that I engage in,

I take pretty seriously.

They’re not low stakes for me.

Actually, I put a lot of importance on them.

Actually, as I’m saying all this,

I probably should put a little less importance on them

and have a little more fun with those.

And yet what I’m about to tell you is that anyone

and everyone can benefit from engaging

in a bit more of this playful mindset.

The playful mindset is not necessarily about smiling

and jumping around or being silly.

That’s not it at all.

It’s not the Tigger character from Winnie the Pooh,

necessarily, it could be,

but it’s really about allowing yourself

to expand the number of outcomes

that you’re willing to entertain

and to think about how you relate

to those different outcomes.

So what this means is putting yourself

into scenarios where you might not be the top performer,

playing a game that you’re not really that good at.

I had this experience recently.

Friends that like to play cards,

they like to do some low stakes gambling.

This is not an illegal gambling ring.

They play for trivial things.

And I generally don’t buy into the game.

I generally don’t play,

mostly because they end up winning

and taking whatever it is that I have.

But in the mode of assuming a more playful spirit,

the idea would be, well, if the stakes are low enough,

then to play simply for the sake of playing,

because there’s something to learn there

about the other people in the group and about oneself

and how one reacts to things like someone

who’s clearly trying to take everybody’s money

or somebody who is clearly trying to cheat

or somebody who’s clearly very, very rigid

about every last detail,

including how the cards are dealt and shuffled, right?

There is learning in this exploration.

And that is at a biological level,

the prefrontal cortex starting

to entertain different possibilities,

starting to entertain different outcomes

in this low stakes way.

And if you think about it,

that’s not something that we allow ourselves

to do very often.

Even if we listen to new forms of music

or we go see new art or new movies,

those are new experiences,

but that’s not us making new predictions

about what’s going to happen next.

It’s not the brain working to figure out new possibilities.

And so you can immediately see how just a small increase

in your willingness to put yourself into conditions

where you don’t understand all the rules perhaps,

or you’re not super proficient at something,

but you enter it because it is low stakes.

And because there is information to learn

about yourself and others,

could start to open up these prefrontal cortex circuits.

And when I say open up,

I don’t mean that literally there’s an opening

in your skull.

What I mean is that your prefrontal cortex

can work in very rigid ways.

Meaning if A, then B.

If I go down this street, turn left

and go that way to work, it is fast.

If I go down the other street, it’s slow.

If there’s a traffic jam there, I’m going to go there,

but it’s starting to explore different possibilities.

And there are very, very few opportunities in life

to explore contingencies in this low stakes way,

such that it engages neuroplasticity

of the prefrontal cortex.

So play is powerful at making your prefrontal cortex

more plastic, more able to change in response to experience,

but not just during the period of play,

but in all scenarios.

Because you get one prefrontal cortex,

you don’t get a prefrontal cortex just for play.

You get a prefrontal cortex that engages in everything.

So going forward, I will layer on

some more concrete aspects of tools.

But for now, if you’re somebody

that doesn’t consider yourself particularly playful,

consider and maybe even engage in just a little bit of play

in some way that is of discomfort to you

with the understanding that is increasing

your prefrontal cortical plasticity.

Another really interesting and important aspect of play

is so-called play postures.

These are seen in animals and these are seen in humans.

And for those of you that are watching

this podcast on YouTube,

I’ll do my best to adopt them here.

For those of you that are listening,

you’ll just have to imagine them in your mind’s eye.

But Jak Pengsepp and indeed Darwin himself

studied these play postures that all animals engage in.

Perhaps the most familiar one is seen in dogs and in wolves

where they will lower their head to the ground

and they’ll put their paws out in front of them

and they will make eye contact

with another typically dog or wolf

to so-called call the play.

Now, when they do this posture,

it’s obvious that they’re lowering themselves.

They’re not in an aggressive stance

because they’re lowering their head.

And this is universally known among canines as play posture.

There’s some famous videos online,

you can look these up,

of dogs actually doing this with bears

that they’re confronted with.

And the bears, at least in these videos,

in exchange also lowering their head

and there you see bear-dog playful interactions.

Now, you always have to be cautious with bears in general.

I would say you have to be cautious with bears.

But this speaks to the universality of this bowing,

this sort of what some people call the puppy bow

or the play bow that dogs do.

Turns out that humans do this as well,

although in a different form.

I’m sure there are some

that go into the down dog play posture,

but more typically when humans want to play,

they will do a subtle or not so subtle head tilt.

The head tilt with eyes open

is considered the universal head and facial expression

posture of play in humans.

So when two people see one another,

if they are aggressive towards one another,

they will assume certain facial expressions and postures.

But if they’re feeling playful towards one another,

oftentimes they’ll tip their head to the side

just a little bit and they’ll open their eyes.

They might even raise their eyebrows briefly.

This has been seen again and again and again.

Another hardwired feature of so-called play postures

is what’s called soft eyes.

When animals are aggressive or when they’re sad,

they tend to reduce the size of their eye openings

by basically making their eyelids closer together,

somewhat by keeping their eyes together

in particular for aggression,

they’ll bring their eyes

towards what we call a virgin’s eye movement,

bring it towards the center

that actually narrows the aperture of the visual field.

When people or animals want to engage in play,

they tend to open their eyelids somewhat

and they tend to purse their lips just a little bit.

So it’s not like throwing or pursing your lips like this,

it’s pursing their lips.

They’ll open their eyes a little bit

and they’ll often do the head tilt as well,

sometimes with a little bit of a smile.

These are reflexive.

These are not trained up.

Children do this, adults do this,

dogs, wolves do this, even certain birds will do this.

Most birds have eyes on the side of their heads,

but they do a sort of form of this soft eyes approach.

And certainly in raptors, you see a softening of the eyes

and indeed raptors like hawks and eagles,

they actually do have a certain form of play,

but only early in life.

The other thing that we see during play

are what are called partial postures.

Partial postures are a kind of play enactment

of postures that would otherwise be threatening.

So a partial posture that we see during play

in animals and humans that relates to aggressive play.

So things like wrestling or things like rough and tumble

play, which is very common in animals and kids

and some adults is that because there’s going to be

a physical interaction in animals,

what will happen is they will march toward one another

often very slowly, but rather than having their hair up,

which we call pyloreaction, which is when the hair goes up,

animals do this to make themselves look bigger.

Think about the cat that’s trying to look bigger

or an animal that’s being aggressive trying to look bigger

in the presence of a foe, a different animal

that they’re either going to try and kill or fight

in some way, even if it’s to defend themselves.

Partial postures occur when animals will approach

one another, but they’ll keep their fur down.

Humans will do this too.

They will approach during play,

but unless it’s highly competitive play,

like a football game or a boxing match,

they will actually shrink their body size somewhat.

We have hair on our bodies, some of us more than others,

and that hair is capable of pyloreaction.

It can stand up.

That’s the hair standing up on end phenomenon,

but most of us don’t have enough hair on our bodies

that we can actually use that to make ourselves larger.

So what you see with people who are about to engage in play

is they tend to make their body a little bit smaller

unless they are highly competitive

and highly competitive play is its own distinct form of play

that we’ll talk about later, such as during sport,

when the stakes are high, a Superbowl football game.

I’m revealing my ignorance about sports here.

The Superbowl as it’s typically called

is a very high stakes game, right?

Salaries depend on it.

Sponsorships depend on it.

It’s on television.

Reputations depend on it.

So that’s not really playing a game.

That’s playing a very high stakes game.

And there you’re not going to see these partial postures.

You’re not going to see soft eyes and tilting of the head,

at least not between the opposing players on the team.

You’re going to see quite the opposite,

grunting, screaming, shouldering,

people not blinking, lowering their eyes,

or rather shrinking their eyes down

to appear more aggressive, these kinds of things,

staring right through the other person,

verbal threats, et cetera.

So that’s not really play,

even though we say they’re playing a game of football,

it’s very high stakes play.

What I’m referring to here is when it’s fairly low stakes.

And we see this again in animals and in humans.

So there are many, many of these partial postures.

Again, they happen spontaneously.

So if someone ever looks at you

and they tilt their head a little bit

and they raise their eyebrows

and they maybe smile a little bit,

they’re looking at you playfully.

That’s the universal human exchange of, I want to play.

Do you want to play?

There’s another play expression

that is considered the most extreme of the,

come on, let’s play expressions and postures.

And this is one that’s seen in a lot of primates

and indeed in some humans as well.

And that’s the eyes wide open and believe it or not,

tongue out.

It’s that kind of silly thing.

And it’s not, I don’t think that I’ve ever done that before.

Just that kind of thing is basically

what primate species of all kinds,

and indeed we are old world primates as well,

do when they want to say, I’m definitely here to play.

And that’s why I’m here.

Okay, it has this kind of silly look or connotation.

But if you watch chimpanzees or you look at bonobos

or even in the so-called new world monkeys,

which tend to be the smaller monkeys,

old world monkeys tend to be the ones that in general

see the world as we do.

They have what we call trichromacy.

They’re the ones that often can look very human-like.

The new world monkeys tend to be the little ones.

In general, I’ll give you a little trick here,

a little tool based on primatology.

If you see a monkey and it’s making very slow movements

or you see an ape of any kinds making very slow movements,

very likely to be an old world primate.

If you see a monkey and it’s making very quick movements,

like it’s doing this kind of thing,

like it’s like, could be a squirrel monkey,

could be a marmoset, likely to be a new world monkey.

And they don’t see the world the same way we do.

They see the world more like a dog.

They don’t really see reds.

They see reds as orange, et cetera.

Okay, that’s not a hard and fast rule.

And I’m sure the primatologists are going to come after me

with whatever primatologists come after you

with monkey biscuits or something like that.

But in general, it’s a good rule.

If you’re at the zoo and you see a slow moving monkey

with slow deliberate gestures, kind of moves its eyes,

makes eye contact every once in a while,

those tend to be the old world primates.

Those kind of jittery ones that look like

they’re really nervous, wrapping their tail

and kind of hiding there in a little bundle,

those tend to be the new world monkeys.

Okay, again, not a black and white type division,

but that’ll get you most of the way.

So the whole purpose of these partial postures

or the tongue out thing is to limit power in deliberate ways

to really take bodily expressions that could be portrayed

or could be interpreted as aggressive or as threatening

or as wanting to mate or as wanting to do anything

for that matter, and to limit the power

with which they are expressed in very deliberate ways.

So that’s the putting the hair down

despite getting into a fighting stance.

That’s saying let’s fight,

but I’m not really here to fight fight.

It’s low stakes fighting.

Like if I pin you, then I’ll let you go.

Or if you pin me, then you ought to let me go.

And so immediately you can start to see how play

starts to call into action social dynamics

in which both parties have to make some sort of agreement

about how high the stakes are.

Now, the failures to do this are also very informative

in how we develop in social groups.

And this also can inform why some people

really play well with others and other people don’t.

And some people seem to get along well with groups

and can handle other people.

And some people are very rigid.

In fact, I have a anecdote about this.

When I was a kid, we used to play this game.

It’s not a game I suggest,

but we used to do what were called dirt clod wars.

So a friend of mine, his parents were generally not home

in the afternoon.

So we must’ve been somewhere around 10 or 11 years old.

And we would set up these two big dirt mounds.

We would shovel them to big dirt mounds

on two sides of the yard.

And then we would just take dirt clods

and we’d throw them at one another

and just have dirt clod wars.

Again, not suggesting this,

I’m not responsible for what happens if you do,

but there were rules.

And the rules were, for instance,

you couldn’t pack rocks into the dirt clods

and you could run across to the other side

and you could jump on the other person’s mound,

you could throw dirt clods in there.

I guess this is the stuff that we thought was entertaining.

But if someone got hit in the head,

generally there was an unspoken rule

that you kind of stop and see whether or not

they were damaged or not before you’d continue.

You couldn’t continue pelting them.

And of course people broke this rule.

In fact, I remember one kid, I’m not going to name him

because actually he’s grown into a very,

very actually prominent and functional adult,

but he got hit once in the head.

And then I think someone had thrown a dirt clod

shortly thereafter.

And all of a sudden he just went into a rage,

picking up rocks and sticks and attacking another kid.

And so clearly that was a case

in which the rules of the game were now being violated,

but it served a very important purpose.

There was the typical thing that there were some tears,

I think, as I recall from one kid or the other,

there was like snot coming out of the nose

and turning bright red.

A kid went home, it was a mess.

The parents had to say something,

or maybe there was a phone call.

I don’t quite recall how it got resolved.

But the idea is that there’s an agreed upon set of rules

about how high the stakes are

and what we’re all going to do.

And this is separate from sport

where there are clearly defined rules

about what’s out of bounds, what’s in bounds,

what sorts of behaviors will get you a yellow card

or a red card, for instance, on the soccer field.

All animals, including humans,

are doing this low stakes contingency testing.

And all animals, including humans,

you will find start to up the stakes.

And inevitably in group play,

one member of the group will kind of break rules.

You see this also in puppies.

So for instance, puppies will bite one another

with those sharp little needle-like puppy teeth.

I remember when Costello had those teeth,

those things were so darn sharp.

And puppies will yelp

when one of their litter mates bites them.

That yelp actually serves a very important

inhibitory function, this is well-defined,

to tell the other one that’s too tough.

And this is how animals learn soft bite, okay?

If they don’t get that feedback from other litter mates,

they never actually learn what’s too hard and what’s soft.

And so humans do this as well.

Now you can look at your adult counterparts,

and indeed we should probably look at ourselves,

and ask, you know, did we learn proper play contingency

when we were younger?

Do we tend to take things too seriously?

Do we tend to overreact aggressively

when other people are clearly engaging in, you know,

playful jabbing or sarcasm or things of that sort?

Each of you will have a different experience of this,

but the point is that play serves many functions.

It’s not just about the self,

it’s also about interactions between multiple people.

It’s about rule testing and low-stakes contingency.

Rule-breaking also serves an important role,

as is with the example of the Dirk-Claude War,

puppies biting other puppies, et cetera.

And last but not least, there are different forms of play

that help us establish who we will become as adults.

One of the more powerful of these is role-play.

When children, and sometimes adults,

will take on different roles that are distinct

from their natural world roles,

in order to, for instance, establish hierarchies.

So someone’s going to be the leader,

and someone’s going to be the follower.

Someone will be dominant, and someone will be submissive.

Someone will work alone, other people will work in a group.

These kinds of role-playing are, again,

ways in which the prefrontal cortex

has to expand the number of operations.

In neuroscience, we call these algorithms

that it has to run in order to make predictions.

You have to take in a lot of information

about your environment all the time and make predictions.

But if you are suddenly cast into a new role,

well, then you definitely have to make even more predictions

from a different standpoint.

So these are very powerful for teaching the brain

how to function.

I had a sister growing up,

I still have a sister, fortunately,

and she and her friends largely played

with dolls and dollhouses in the room next door,

and they would take on different roles.

In fact, some kids, if they play alone,

will start to take on the role of leader

by taking on an imaginary or creating an imaginary friend.

And my apologies to my sibling,

but for a long time, she had an imaginary friend.

Eventually, that imaginary friend disappeared.

I don’t know the science around imaginary friends

and what makes them disappear or not,

at what stage of development,

but imaginary friends are pretty common.

And that’s just another way of being able to

boss somebody around, if that’s your thing,

or to engage in cooperative play.

So we can look at this stage of development

we call childhood, and we can look at each stage of it,

and we can say, wow,

there are all these different dimensions of play

that really are about testing out

how we feel, comfortable or uncomfortable,

how we react, good or bad,

how we react with stress or with glee

when others behave in certain ways.

And so what I’m hoping is coming through

is that play is not just about having fun.

Play is about testing.

It’s about experimenting,

and it’s about expanding your brain’s capacity.

And that’s true early in development,

and it’s true throughout the lifespan.

So at this point in the discussion,

I want to take a step back,

look at the biology and neurochemistry of play

just a little bit.

And in doing that, really define what is effective play.

If the goal of play is to explore different contingencies

in low stakes environments,

and to expand the function of our prefrontal cortex

so that we can see new possibilities

and new ways of being become more flexible,

more creative, more effective outside of the games of play,

or the arenas of play, I should say,

well, then we should be asking,

how do I know if I’m playing?

How do I know if I’m playing correctly?

Turns out there’s an answer to that.

Earlier, I referred to this brain area,

the periaqueductal gray that releases opioids,

endogenous opioids into our brain and body,

and tends to relax us a bit.

It actually is what leads to these things like soft eyes

and head tilts and puppies making puppy postures

and things of that sort.

And how that opens up the number of different functions

or algorithms that the prefrontal cortex can run.

But there’s another piece of the puzzle,

which is for something to genuinely be play and playful,

and for it to have this effect of expanding our brain

and engaging neuroplasticity,

of really changing our brain so that we can see

and engage in more possible behaviors

and thoughts, et cetera.

We also have to have low amounts of adrenaline,

so-called epinephrine, in our brain and body.

Now, the background science for this is quite extensive,

but for those of you that are interested in papers

and manuscripts, perhaps the best one is a review

published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews

by the very Jak Pengsepp, although he has a co-author,

which is Steven Sivey, S-I-V-E-Y.

I’ll provide a link to this in the caption show notes.

And the title of this paper is

In Search of the Neurobiological Substrates

for Social Playfulness in Mammalian Brains.

And it’s a quite extensive review,

but it basically boils down to some key findings

whereby any sorts of drugs or behaviors or scenarios

that increase levels of adrenaline too much

will tend to inhibit play.

And drugs and scenarios,

and I’m not suggesting recreational drugs here,

but these were experiments that were done

in the laboratory setting,

that increase the endogenous opioid output

will tend to increase playfulness.

And so really the state of mind

that one needs to adopt when playing is,

first of all, you have to engage in the play,

whatever it happens to be,

with some degree of focus and seriousness.

And focus and seriousness in the neurobiological context

generally means epinephrine.

Being able to focus is largely reliant

on things like adrenaline, epinephrine,

but also the presence of dopamine,

which is a molecule that generates motivation

and focus in concert with epinephrine,

but also that these endogenous opioids be liberated.

And it’s really the low stakes feature of play

that allows those endogenous opioids to be liberated.

What do I mean by that?

Well, if you are very, very concerned about the outcome,

like you’ve put a lot of money on the table in a given game

or you’re a football player in the Superbowl,

or you’re playing a game for which,

you know, defeating the other person

or your team winning is absolutely crucial to you.

Well, then that’s not really going to engage

the play circuitry.

On the contrary, if you’re engaging in those same behaviors

or any other behavior in a way

that you’re simply there to explore,

but you don’t have high levels of adrenaline in your system,

you’re not stressed about the potential outcome,

well, then that constitutes play.

Now that’s somewhat obvious on the one hand,

that you take seriously what you take seriously

and you can be more playful about things

that you don’t take so seriously.

But what is absolutely not obvious

is that the state of playfulness

is actually what allows you to perform best

because the state of playfulness

offers you the opportunity to engage

in novel types of behaviors and interactions

that you would not otherwise be able to access

if you are so focused on the outcome, okay?

So a state of playfulness is absolutely critical,

not just during play,

but during competitive scenarios of any kind.

I actually started to cultivate a practice

related to this when I was in college.

I had this kind of general practice

of when I wanted to learn something,

I would tell myself

that it was the most important information in the world

and that I was very, very interested in it.

I would kind of lie to myself and say,

oh, I’m super interested in, I won’t name the topics,

but super interested in this or super interested in that.

And I could sort of delude myself

into being hyper-focused on whatever it is

that I was learning in ways that surprised me.

However, when we are hyper-focused on something

and we are rigidly attached to the outcome,

we can’t engage in flexible thinking.

So it’s a great tool to be hyper-focused on something

and take it very, very seriously

when we’re simply trying to learn things

by kind of rote memory, learn things and regurgitate,

learn and regurgitate of the sort that,

frankly, a lot of schooling involves.

But if we are trying to get better at something,

we’ve sort of hit a wall in athletic performance

or in cognitive performance where we’re not creative enough

or we’re finding, let’s just use a sports example

that we only have a certain number of moves

that we can deploy

or a certain number of swings of the racket

that we can deploy.

The way to actually expand your practice

is to engage in this kind of low stakes thinking,

the idea that, well, I’m just going to kind of play

and tinker.

I’m going to explore in a way

that it doesn’t really matter

if the ball goes back over the net.

It doesn’t really matter if the ball goes in the hole.

And it’s counterintuitive because you think,

no, the thing that we need to do is drill and drill

and drill and drill.

And indeed, there’s a place for that.

But this mode of play with modest levels

of endogenous opioids being released in our system

plus low levels of adrenaline, right?

Epinephrine, low levels of epinephrine and adrenaline

are possible only when the stakes are low enough

that we’re not stressed.

Well, that combination really allows the prefrontal cortex

to explore different possibilities

in ways that can truly expand our capabilities over time.

Now, this has been seen again and again,

also in the business sector.

Some of the more challenging

or I should say competitive companies to get jobs at

are very interested in hiring people

that as children were so-called tinkerers

and actually NASA was first famous for this,

that many of the people that achieved great success

in engineering at NASA,

when they looked back into their childhood histories,

those people tended to be tinkers.

They were people that would kind of play with things

in a way that wasn’t about rigidly following a recipe

or an instruction manual.

Great cooks discover new forms of food,

indeed create entire genres of food

by way of being tinkers, okay?

Musicians do this.

I grew up playing various sports,

but skateboarding was one

that I was particularly involved in for a long time.

One of the greatest skateboarders of all time is,

some of you may recognize his name

is the great Rodney Mullen.

And Rodney was kind of famous for evolving the sport

and continue to evolve the sport

in ways that no one could predict,

using skateboards and all sorts of ways

that no one had thought of previously.

And of course, there are other skateboarders

that did that as well,

but he’s particularly well-known for that.

And his process is his own.

I can’t speak to it too much,

but he was also known as a kind of a tinker

or as somebody who would spend a lot of time

just kind of flipping the board

and just flipping it in the air

and watching the ways in which it flipped

and kind of studying the physics of it really,

and expanding on his existing understanding

of what could happen on a skateboard

by way of just playing.

Now he took it very seriously,

but it’s this kind of razor’s edge

between taking something very seriously,

but also tinkering and playing and exploring

and just seeing what happens,

kind of like, well, let’s just see what happens

if we did this.

That mindset is extremely powerful

to export from this thing that we call play

into what we could call more serious endeavors

of one’s occupation or sport,

whether or not it’s behind a desk

or whether or not it’s running around on a field,

really for, or engineering, any endeavor.

And so the whole purpose of this episode on play

is yes, on the one hand,

to illustrate the incredible evolutionary utility of play

for setting up the self

and relation of the self to others,

indeed for setting up cultures entirely

because cultures will watch sport together

or they’ll celebrate their team winning.

I mean, World Cup, I’ve never been a big soccer fan,

even though my dad is Argentine, but it’s incredible.

I mean, the entire world kind of lights up

and gets engaged around whether or not their team,

their country is going to win.

The Olympics also being another example,

but play and sport are not quite the same

as I’ve pointed out before.

And for all of us who are thinking about tools

and things that we can extract from science

to enrich our lives,

I would say for those of you that are already playing

on a regular basis in one form or another, terrific.

Start to expand other forms of play,

in particular forms of play

that involve new groups of individuals.

So if you’re somebody that typically plays one-on-one

with somebody, try to expand into playing as teams.

If you’re somebody who only plays alone,

then try to expand into playing in perhaps one-on-one first

and in groups.

This is the way that your brain learns and evolves

and changes and gets better.

And I raise this because another one

of the top 10 questions I get is,

how can I keep my brain young?

How can I continue to learn?

How can I get better in school, in sport, in life,

in relationships, et cetera, emotionally, cognitively,

and on and on and on.

And yes, there are supplements

that can support neuroplasticity.

Yes, there are brain games and apps

that can support neuroplasticity.

But if you really want to engage in neuroplasticity

at any age, what you need to do is return

to the same sorts of practices and tools

that your nervous system naturally used

throughout development.

And that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years

to trigger this thing that we call neuroplasticity.

And the reason this is so important is

because it starts to move us away

from what some people called hacks.

I define hacks as using one thing for a different purpose

to kind of get a shortcut.

I don’t really like the term, frankly.

And I don’t like it because it’s not grounded

in any biological mechanism.

But when we look at play,

we can say play is the portal to plasticity.

Play at every stage of life is the way

in which we learned the rules for that stage of life.

And play is the way in which we were able

to test how we might function in the real world context.

So play is powerful.

And we could even say

that play is the most powerful portal to plasticity.

The reason for that is that, yes,

this high opioid, low epinephrine,

or adrenaline state is what opens up play.

But then inside of the arena of play,

when the prefrontal cortex is running

all these different possibilities in this low stakes way,

but with some degree of focus,

there are a number of other chemicals that are deployed.

Things like brain-derived nootrophic factor

and other growth factors that actually trigger

the rewiring of brain circuits that allow for it to expand.

And indeed, that’s what is neuroplasticity.

If you’re interested in those chemicals

and the kind of arena of things that happen

when one engages in neuroplasticity,

there’s a vast literature out there.

But one of the more popular books

that I think is quite good is from my friend

and colleague, John Rady,

who’s a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School.

That’s R-A-T-E-Y.

He wrote the book, Spark, a few years back.

And I think it’s still very relevant.

And John talks about the important role

that play exerts in the neuroplasticity process

and points to a number of different protocols

that one can engage in.

He also points to the importance

of navigating new environments,

to not just go on the same hike every week

or take the same walk,

but actually get into new novel environments.

So you’re starting to sense a theme here.

There’s novelty, exploring contingencies,

keeping the stakes relatively low, et cetera, et cetera.

But these really are the gates to this Holy Grail

that we call neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity, as I’ve talked about in the podcast before,

is a two-step process.

It involves focusing very intensely

or at least focusing somewhat

on whatever it is that one is trying to learn,

and then engaging in deep rest,

ideally deep sleep, in the following nights.

And I’ve also talked about the benefits

of things like naps and yoga nidra,

so-called NSDR, non-sleep deep rest,

for enhancing or accelerating plasticity.

You can check out the episodes on Focus

at or the episodes

on how to learn faster that detail all those.

We had a newsletter that lists out

all the tools for neuroplasticity,

enhancing neuroplasticity.

All that is available zero cost to you

at, et cetera.

You can just download that information.

But John’s book, that newsletter, those episodes,

they really point to this two-step process

where it’s focus and then rest, focus and then rest.

And play is its own unique form

of focused and then rest, focus and rest.

It’s not the same as learning something for sake of school

or critically trying to learn a motor behavior

for sake of sport.

It’s really about expanding the number of things

that you could learn down the line, okay?

So said once again, so I just want to make sure

it’s abundantly clear.

Play is about establishing a broader framework

within which you can learn new things.

It’s not about learning some specific thing.

It’s not about the game you happen to be playing.

It’s not about the dollhouse that the kids are playing with

so that they can become amazing dollhouse players

when they grow up, right?

The dirt clod war that I referred to earlier

for better or for worse,

was not about becoming the best dirt clod thrower

or winning the trophy for dirt clods in the neighborhood,

although we actually had a trophy

for the best dirt clod team.

Alas, it was not my team that year.

But the point is that you’re learning rules

and establishing a broader foundation of practices

that then you can learn more things within that context.

Thus far, I’ve tried to convince you

through a combination of data and anecdote and explanation

that adopting a stance of playfulness

and indeed engaging in play on a somewhat regular basis

could be beneficial to you

regardless of circumstances or goals.

If I haven’t done that already,

what I’m about to tell you hopefully

will push you over the line.

It turns out that when you look across the kingdom

of all animals,

what you find is that animals that engage

in playful behaviors for the longest period of time

are also the animals

that have the greatest degree of neuroplasticity,

the brain and nervous system’s ability to change

in response to experience.

Put differently, animals that only play

for a very small fraction of their entire life

have very rigid brains that don’t learn new things.

Whereas animals that play for a long period

throughout their life have very plastic brains.

And there’s even some evidence

that’s at this point largely anecdotal,

but there’s some data starting to emerge

that adults that maintain a playful stance,

that engage in things, again,

that are low stakes, contingency exploring,

important enough that people focus

and that people pay attention to what they’re doing,

but that they are not filled with adrenaline,

freaked out about the outcome being A or B.

They’re not super, super competitive,

maybe just a little bit competitive

or not competitive at all.

That allows for more ongoing plasticity.

And one of the people that comes to mind

in thinking about this is of course the physicist,

and I should say the great physicist,

Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner,

professor at Caltech,

was involved in the Manhattan Project,

but was also known for being a lifelong tinkerer, right?

He also was a mischievous tinkerer.

If you read any of the books about Feynman or by Feynman,

surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman,

or what do you care what other people think?

These are wonderful short stories,

mostly about Feynman doing things like picking all the locks

at the Los Alamos Laboratory

and putting all the top secret documents

out on the floor of the office

so that when people came in in the morning,

they were all out there.

Obviously they weren’t released to the general public.

He didn’t want to threaten national security,

but playing pranks like that.

And actually Caltech, I don’t know if this is still the case,

but Caltech where he was employed was always known

for doing very technologically challenging pranks.

They’re not known for their athletic prowess at Caltech,

sorry, Caltech, but they were known, for example,

disrupting the scoreboard at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena,

for instance, and things of that sort

through technological feats that at least at the time

required a lot of playfulness and technological prowess.

So if you look in science or you look in art

or you look in medicine or you look in any domain,

what you find is the people that continue

to evolve new practices tend to be people

that were tinkers, people that are very creative

tend to be people that are unafraid of exploring things

in this low stakes way.

They’re not so rigidly attached to the outcome

that they have to do everything perfectly all the time.

Now they might cloak these playful behaviors

so that their final works always look perfect

or always look incredible,

but they have this kind of playful nature about them.

I would venture even to say that the street artists,

Banksy, for instance, obviously an incredible artist

puts a ton of thought and preparation into their work,

but there’s a kind of playfulness to the whole thing too

of using two-dimensional paintings in concert

with three-dimensional city dwellings in ways

that I think that most people hadn’t previously.

There were other people like Christo

and artists of that sort that did that.

But I think Banksy is kind of recognized

as the modern rendition of that kind of playfulness

using cities in ways that most people don’t use cities,

using art in ways that most people don’t use art,

for instance.

So to go back to the example of Feynman,

Feynman was somebody who learned to paint

and draw quite well into his 60s.

He was somewhat famous or infamous, I should say,

for bongo drumming on the roof of Caltech.

I say infamous because he was known also

for doing that naked,

something that is certainly not in concert

with the ethical standards and behaviors

of universities today.

But Feynman had this playful spirit

as a child, he had that playful spirit as a teenager,

and he had that playful spirit as an adult.

And that’s one of the hallmarks of Feynman

was that he wasn’t just a rigid physicist

who could explain things clearly to the general public.

He always carried through this playful spirit.

And in some of his writings,

he pointed to the fact that that playful spirit

was something that he worked very hard to continue

to cultivate in himself because it was the way

in which he could see the world differently

and to indeed make great discoveries

in the field of physics,

but also to kind of evolve his relationship

to life more generally.

And so he comes to mind as a prominent example

of somebody who did this.

And if I could achieve anything with this episode,

besides teaching you something about the biology of play,

would be to teach you about the utility of play.

Again, I don’t consider myself

a particularly playful person by nature,

but I’ve tried over the years to adopt this stance

of exploring things that are, you know,

very focused on contingencies of different kinds,

but keep the stakes low enough

that I can have some fun doing them.

And I like to think that it’s benefited me somewhat.

Now, I’d like to drill a little bit further

into this thing that we call neuroplasticity.

Again, neuroplasticity is the brain and nervous systems'

ability to change in response to experience.

And I should just say that throughout the entire lifespan,

the nervous system can change very quickly

in response to negative experiences.

We can almost all engage

in what’s called one trial learning,

where if something really terrible

or traumatic happens to us,

our nervous system will rewire almost immediately,

at least within a few days,

such that we tend to want to avoid the experience

that led to that trauma.

Now, the whole business of why people return

to things that are traumatic to them

is a whole other issue.

There are books about things like trauma bonding.

There’s the so-called repetition compulsion

from psychoanalysis that people go back into trauma

to retest and gain new opportunities

to overcome the trauma, et cetera, et cetera.

But in general, what I’m referring to here is,

you know, you have a bad experience at the swimming pool

when you’re a kid,

where someone holds your head underwater too long,

and then you just don’t want to get back in the water.

That’s one trial learning of sorts.

That of course can be overcome

through proper exposure therapy

or someone that you trust taking you there,

or any number of behaviors that allow you

to overcome that particular scenario

and experience something new in that same context.

But across the lifespan,

the learning of new things, new contingencies,

new possibilities occurs very differently

from about age zero when we’re born

until about age 25 and thereafter.

So from about, I want to emphasize,

approximately age 25 onward,

neuroplasticity occurs through the process

that is exactly as I described before.

Focus, rest, focus, rest.

We focus very intensely.

We can’t do the thing.

We can’t do the new movement.

We can’t do the golf swing.

We can’t learn the math.

We try, we try, we try, we try.

We sleep a few nights,

and then all of a sudden we can do it, right?

Because the rewiring actually occurs during deep rest

or naps, but mostly during deep sleep.

From birth till about age 25, however,

we can learn things, new things, and new contingencies,

not just negative things and traumatic things,

through somewhat passive exposure to those things, right?

I will never forget the first time

that we went on a family trip to Washington DC

and we went to the Smithsonian.

I got to see the old fighter planes.

And I think the Kitty Hawk

or one of the first planes was there.

Anyway, obviously my recollection isn’t terrific.

My hippocampus is flailing on that one,

but I’ll never forget the trip

and I’ll never forget who went.

And I think it was probably eight or nine years old.

It’s embedded somewhere in my memory.

And so just through passive experience

and my focusing on the things that excited me

about that trip, I have a recollection of that experience.

I didn’t have to deliberately focus.

I wasn’t telling myself, focus,

you’re going to need to remember this trip someday,

and you’re going to be podcasting about this,

you know, in 39 years or whenever.

Again, I forget exactly how old I was.

But the key feature here is that the developing brain

is able to learn through passive experience

because the neurons, the nerve cells

in the developing brain are much more over-connected

than they will be later in life.

The way to think about this is sort of

if you use Google Maps, as I do too often, I think,

when I drive, there are a number of roads and pathways

that would get you from point A to point B.

We could imagine those as neural circuits

or we can imagine neural circuits as those roads.

Early in development,

the nerve connections are much more extensive.

It’s like having a Google Maps

that where everything is connected to everything

through tiny little cross streets

and the whole thing is just a complete mess.

But then by taking particular routes of behavior,

of thought, of emotion,

certain routes become well-established

and the other routes that are not taken simply disappear.

Now, in the biological context, in the brain,

we call that process pruning.

And the simple way to envision this is early in development,

you have many, many more neurons

than you will have as an adult.

Those neurons are extensively interconnected

and approximately 40% of those interconnections

will disappear by the time you’re 25 years old.

They are gone.

They are actively removed through processes

that involve things like glial cells that come in

and literally sneak their little processes

in between neurons at the synapse,

which are the points of contact

and communication between neurons,

and push those apart, even eat neurons, right?

There’s an incredible work from, for instance,

Beth Stevens’ lab at Harvard Medical School

showing that glial cells go in and eat synapses

that are not functional for that particular circuit.

Now, what this tells us

is that much of our learning during development

is the removal of incorrect connections,

but it also involves the strengthening of connections

that are going to serve certain emotions,

certain functions, motor functions,

cognitive functions, et cetera.

The process of play is largely a process

of engaging pruning of neural connections

and strengthening of the remaining connections.

I’m sure that many of you have heard the term

fire together, wire together.

That phrase is often incorrectly attributed

to the great Donald Hebb, who indeed was great,

did incredible work, a psychologist from Canada

who established a lot of the basic cellular learning rules

for learning and memory,

but it was the also great Dr. Carla Schatz,

who is now at Stanford and was at Berkeley

and Harvard as well, but who is at Stanford Medical School

who coined this term fire together, wire together.

Indeed, that’s what happens.

When children play, when adolescents play,

and when young adults play, whether or not it’s social play

or play with an object, whether or not it’s a sport

or play of any kind, imaginary play, imaginary friend play,

there is a strengthening of certain neural connections

and a pruning away of up to 40%, perhaps even more

of connections that are not necessary

for certain types of behaviors, emotions, and thoughts.

What this means is that it is through the process of play

that we become who we are as adults.

And as I mentioned earlier, it is through the process

of play that we are able to adjust who we are as adults.

Now, there are bounds on this process.

As far as I know, there’s never been a reported case

of an individual who had a hyperplastic

or a brain that was as plastic in adulthood

as it was in childhood.

But what this tells us is that what we do

in the process of play as children

is really how we set up the rules for how we behave

as adults in almost all domains,

which is really incredible.

And of course, the reassuring thing is that

playing as an adult will allow you to expand

on those neural circuits.

You can literally grow new connections.

Some of you may be saying, does it create new neurons?

For better or for worse, it does not seem

that many new neurons are added to your brain in adulthood.

There are some papers that report a few neurons

in certain brain areas, isolated brain areas,

but by and large, most of the rewiring of neural connections

is the removal of certain connections,

this process we’re calling pruning,

and the strengthening of the remaining connections

that make those kind of Google Maps roads

in the analogy I laid out before thicker and more robust.

Think of that as taking little trails

and turning them into roads, then paving those roads,

then turning those roads into highways,

then putting up more lanes on those highways

and eliminating all the small little backcountry roads

that one could take.

And again, this is an analogy for what is happening

at the level of neural circuitry.

Now, one of the key findings that has emerged

from the literature is that children

that have been subjected to trauma

or immense amounts of stress of any kind

have a harder time both engaging in play,

but also a harder time accessing neuroplasticity

later in life.

The good news is this is not a permanent effect.

And we’ll talk about some of the ways to overcome that

in a moment, but this should make sense to you

because earlier we talked about how a high level

of adrenaline, epinephrine in the brain and body

actually inhibits, blocks the circuits in the brain

and body that generate play behavior.

And when I say that, I mean that in a very concrete way

that epinephrine and adrenaline can actually suppress

the sorts of circuitry that can lead to things

like soft eyes or tongue out or the head tilt

or what we called partial postures

of being able to engage in a rough and tumble play,

but not take that to the point of outright aggression

damaging the other person or them damaging you.

So when I say that, you know, trauma and stress

can inhibit neuroplasticity by way of inhibiting play

at a deeper neurobiological level,

what I’m really saying is that the high levels of adrenaline

that are generated from trauma and stress

actually shut down the circuits that allow a child

or a young adult to enter the game of play

or engage in the game of play in the same way

that a child or young adult who didn’t have

high levels of adrenaline in their system

could possibly engage in.

Now, the good news is that many of the existing

trauma therapies that are out there now,

including things like EMDR, exposure therapy,

cognitive behavioral therapy, and on and on,

including some of the therapies that are more neurochemical,

things like ketamine or are more engineering based,

things like transcranial magnetic stimulation, for instance,

many of those are paired with forms of talk therapy

that are really about the same thing that play is about,

which is exploring different contingencies.

It’s about exploring different types of emotional experiences

as they relate to the same sort of scenario

that created the trauma.

And we did an entire episode on fear and trauma,

and I recommend you check out that episode.

It’s easy to find again at,

it’s on YouTube, Apple, Spotify, et cetera, et cetera,

very easy to find.

And there I talk all about trauma treatments

and the various kinds of trauma treatments

that are out there,

efficacy in different scenarios and traumas and so on.

But the point I’d like to make now is that

the reason why children who experience

a lot of trauma and stress have limited plasticity later on

is because of the neurochemical substrates

that are created from trauma and stress,

because after all stress is epinephrine

and epinephrine is stress, those are inseparable.

And the way in which it more or less shuts down

or at least inhibits, suppresses those play circuits.

And again, the reassuring thing is that

by engaging in play as adults,

we can reactivate some of those circuits

and reopen the plasticity.

In fact, one very prominent trauma treatment now,

especially for people that have been subjected

to very severe traumas in the ongoing sense,

meaning traumas that went on for many, many years

is to get them to engage in play in things like dance,

in basically getting them to engage their bodily movements

in ways that they would otherwise

not feel comfortable to engage in.

And I find this area so interesting

because on the face of it, you could say,

oh, that’s kind of, you know,

is that really biomedical treatment?

You know, you’re taking people who are traumatized

and having them dance.

I mean, it seems kind of silly on the one hand,

depending on your, you know, your particular orientation,

but on the other hand, it’s actually quite profound

and quite grounded in the mechanisms

by which the brain circuits change.

So again, back to this original principle,

which is that play isn’t just one portal to plasticity,

play is the fundamental portal to plasticity

and that play and dance and exploration of novel movements,

exploration of novel athletic movements are the route

by which we access new ways of thinking, new contingencies.

And I find it wonderful that the trauma release

and the psychiatric and psychology community

are exploring things like play and dance

and other forms of reopening these circuits,

because indeed we would all love for there

to be a magic pill by which trauma could be erased

and new memories could be laid down

or a device that could do that.

But frankly, if you ask me or a number of my colleagues,

whether or not that’s likely to happen anytime soon

in an effective way,

I think the short answer is going to be no,

that there are going to be chemicals

and things that can augment and support that process,

but that there’s not going to be just a magic pill

that will suddenly reverse trauma altogether,

that it’s always going to be a case

whereby shifts in neurochemical states

are going to have to be combined

with new ways of thinking and new behaviors.

And I find it wonderful and reassuring

that people are looking at play and play behavior

as a not just one tiny shard of possibility there,

but that it might actually be the main driver

and a highly productive lever

by which to rewire the traumatized brain.

So if you’re like me, you might be thinking,

okay, I’m willing to be more playful.

I’m willing to explore play as a portal to plasticity.

And that all makes good sense.

But what should I play?

What should I do?

Well, we’ve already established

that you want to keep your adrenaline low.

You have to keep the stakes low enough

that you’re not going to get totally consumed

by the outcome.

Now, for some people who are highly competitive,

that’s going to be challenging.

And yet I don’t want to make it seem

as if you can’t be competitive during play.

There are many forms of competitive play

that because you are a competitive person

allow you to derive great joy from that competitive play.

I have a friend who’s particularly good at horseshoes.

I’m not particularly good at horseshoes,

but whenever we play horseshoes,

I can tell he’s out there to crush me on horseshoes.

And it’s just one of these things where, you know,

I can tell he derives great pleasure

from crushing me at a game of horseshoes.

I can’t say because I haven’t actually

done the microdialysis,

which is a way of extracting chemistry

from the brain in real time,

nor have I recorded from his brain

or imaged it in a scanner,

whether or not he has high levels of epinephrine

or low levels of epinephrine

during those games of horseshoes.

I suspect his low levels of epinephrine

and high levels of dopamine, especially when he wins.

And yes, he wins every time.

But the point is that you can be competitive during play,

provided that you are enjoying yourself.

Okay, you can be competitive

provided that you’re enjoying yourself.

There are particular forms of play

that lend themselves best to neuroplasticity.

And those particular forms of play, again,

are not designed to necessarily just engage the plasticity

that allows you to perform that behavior,

but rather to expand the number of possibilities

for your brain to change in general throughout life.

And the two major forms of those

for which there’s good peer-reviewed research

is to engage in novel forms of movement,

including different speeds of movement.

So let’s say for instance, you’re somebody who runs.

I happen to like running.

I try and run three times a week.

And generally when I run, I run forward.

I don’t run backward, although recently,

because I’ve become very excited

about the work of so-called Knees Over Toes Guy.

His name is Ben Parker,

but he goes by Knees Over Toes Guy on Instagram.

I’ve never met him,

but we’ve exchanged a few messages back and forth.

And some of his practices involve walking backwards

or doing sled pulls backwards.

I found these to be very beneficial for my back

and for my anterior tibialis

and some things that have really helped

with my posture and so forth.

But in general, when I run, I run forward.

I don’t tend to run backward that much.

And I might do that for a few minutes at the end,

but not so much throughout the entire run.

Running doesn’t lend itself to a lot of novel forms

of movement, lateral movement.

So for you nerds out there moving in the sagittal plane

or angled movements,

but it does appear that things like dance or sports

where you end up generating a lot of dynamic movements,

where there’s jumping,

where there’s movement at different angles,

where there’s ducking, where there’s leaping,

that basically involve a lot of dynamic movement

and aren’t just strictly linear.

Those seem to open the portals for plasticity.

And that’s because they mimic a lot of the brain circuitry

that is associated with play.

And the reason for that is the way

in which those dynamic movements

and movements of different speeds

engage the vestibular system, the balance system.

The vestibular system is in the inner ear,

relates to the cerebellum, which translates to mini brain.

You got a little mini brain in the back of your brain.

It brings together visual information in a very direct way.

I talked a lot about this in the episode

on how to learn faster.

So if you want to go in depth on how vestibular

and different types of motor movements can open plasticity,

I talk a little bit more, I should say a lot more there.

But suffice to say that engaging in play

that has a lot of dynamic movement

or movements of different speeds,

things like dance, things like sports,

like soccer, where you’re moving in different dimensions,

that tends to be very conducive

to what we would call play-related circuitry,

provided you don’t take it too seriously.

You don’t get those high levels of epinephrine.

Now, for those of you that are also interested

in non-physical or non-athletic forms of play

that can really expand plasticity,

there’s some very interesting research

about the game of chess.

I don’t play the game of chess.

I’ve played a few times.

I confess I don’t know how to move all the pieces.

So I’m not going to try and describe that here,

but I’ve always wanted to learn chess.

And I think after reading some of the peer-reviewed research

about chess and play and neuroplasticity,

now I understand why.

There’s a really nice paper that was published

in the International Journal of Research

in Education and Science in 2017.

And the title of this paper is,

Is Chess Just a Game?

Or Is It a Mirror That Reflects a Child’s Inner World?

That’s a very intense title for a biologist like me.

But this paper is so interesting

because what it really points to is the fact

that in a single game, chess,

you have, at least as I understand, two players.

And those two players are moving pieces

on the chess board for which each piece

can do different things, right?

Can move in different ways under different scenarios,

but there are different rules for different pieces.

And so each player actually has to assume

multiple identities during the same game.

And each of those identities has different rules

and ways of interacting.

So in a way we can think of chess as one game,

but actually chess is a kind of a substrate

for exploring multiple roles for different characters.

And this is quite a bit different than for instance,

video games where somebody has their favorite

video game player or they have an avatar

and they’re always in the same role.

It’s also quite a bit different for when you engage

in any kind of play where you are yourself,

you’re just being you in that game.

And so now I’m highly incentivized to explore chess.

You see quotes out there, for instance,

things like chess is life or jujitsu is life.

I always assumed that that meant

that someone’s entire life was chess

or their entire life was jujitsu, for instance.

But in reading over the research about chess in particular,

but also certain forms of martial arts,

also certain forms of dance,

what one finds is that indeed those games are life

in the sense that they involve adopting multiple roles

and exploring contingencies in a number of different ways.

So there are some games that allow you to explore

a much vaster landscape of movements or of mental roles

or ways of engaging in strategic movement

as is the case with chess.

And so when you hear that activity blank is life,

it often reflects the passion for that activity.

But I think looked at differently,

it also reflects the fact that that activity

is a portal through which you can explore life

through many, many different lenses.

And I think that that’s especially powerful

in terms of thinking about how play

can be leveraged for plasticity.

So for those of you that are interested in leveraging play

for neuroplasticity and expanding your mind, if you will,

I highly recommend picking an activity

that will allow you to adopt different roles

within that activity where it’s not rigidly linear.

This is actually a way in which I start to depart

from this modern and important,

but somewhat narrow idea that exercise

is the only route to plasticity.

Yes, it’s true.

I have Nobel prize winning colleagues

that swim for two miles a day

and have done that for a long time.

And they will tell you,

I always think more clearly after my swimming.

And I certainly, in my experience,

after a good run or a good workout,

my mind seems to work best.

Unless of course that workout was very, very intense.

I’ve talked about this before.

If you do work out very, very hard

in whether or not it’s aerobic or resistance training

or sport of any kind,

your brain won’t function as well afterwards,

mostly because of the diversion of oxygen

to tissues away from your brain.

You actually are getting less oxygen to your brain.

But in general, most of us feel that

if we exercise regularly, our brain functions better.

But there are activities that extend beyond linear exercise,

beyond just generating the same sets of movements

over and over again, whether or not it’s exercise or not.

And that’s really what play is.

Play is about dynamically exploring

different kinds of movements,

dynamically exploring different kinds of thoughts,

dynamically exploring different kinds of roles

that one could adopt.

And that is the way that the brain learns new things.

So I encourage you to explore chess.

I intend to learn chess this year.

I’m very excited to do that.

Now, if you already play chess

and you are an expert chess player,

you actually will derive less benefit

in terms of this play-induced neuroplasticity

than you would, for instance, if you went out and,

I don’t know, played a game of soccer

or did something that was very novel for your nervous system

because in that novelty and in that exploration

of new behaviors and new ways of thinking,

you are opening the portal to plasticity.

Whereas in doing what you already know how to do

and trying just to perform better and better at it,

you will get better at chess.

But again, that’s just chess.

You are not expanding the realms

in which you can become more plastic,

that you are able to learn new things in relationship,

in life, in finance, in friendship, et cetera.

In researching this episode,

one of the most interesting areas I discovered

was this notion of personal play identity.

Personal play identity is a term that,

at least to my knowledge, was coined by a Turkish researcher

by the name, and forgive me, I’m going to mispronounce this,

is Gokhan Gunes, G-O-K-H-A-N,

last name G-U-N-E-S.

And forgive me, Gokhan,

and if we have any Turkish-speaking members

of the audience, please put the correction

in the comment section on YouTube,

make it phonetic so I can understand what it is.

Please, I’d love to correct it and apologies, or who knows,

if I got it right, then it was pure luck.

Gokhan Gunes has coined this term personal play identity

and the key role that personal play identity

establishes in who we see ourselves as being

and not just in the context of play.

Personal play identity has four well-defined dimensions.

And I should say that if you’re interested

in learning more about this,

the paper that I found particularly informative

is published in Current Psychology,

and the title is,

Personal Play Identity and the Fundamental Elements

in Its Developmental Process.

And the author, of course, is Gokhan Gunes,

G-U-N-E-S, last name.

This is from 2021, so recent review.

There are four components to personal play identity.

How you play, your personality,

socioculture, and environment.

So that’s the third one that’s together,

socioculture and environment,

and economics and technology.

Now that sounds somewhat complex,

and this paper is somewhat complex,

but basically what it says is that we bring together

certain aspects of ourselves

and how we react to different play scenarios

when we’re younger.

And we bring that forward into the world

in all contexts as adults.

To illustrate this, I’m going to ask you a question.

When you were a child, let’s say 10 years old,

would you have considered yourself competitive?

Would you have considered yourself

somebody who’s cooperative?

And realize, of course, that those are

not mutually exclusive.

You could be competitive and cooperative.

Would you consider yourself somebody

that preferred to play alone

or preferred to play with one or two close friends?

Or were you somebody that really enjoyed

playing in large groups?

Here’s a key one.

Were you somebody that enjoyed playing the leader

in one moment and was equally okay

with being a follower at a later moment?

Were you okay with having your role switched

midway through a game?

Would you get upset or be delighted

or not care at all about having to switch teams

during the middle of a game

because your team was winning, right?

To even things out.

You can imagine how that would play out internally.

You would immediately register

that you must be a valuable player

because you’re being moved off the winning team

toward the losing team.

But then again, you’re now being forced

to join the losing team.

How did you feel about that?

Were you somebody that was comfortable

with other people breaking rules

or perhaps even yourself breaking rules

or bending rules?

Kind of ill-defined term.

Or were you somebody that really needed

to know all the rules

and if everyone didn’t rigidly adhere

to those rules was quite disturbed by that?

The number of questions goes on and on and on.

And I will provide a link to a paper

that asks a number of questions

that helps you arrive at a sort of score of sorts

or an index of what Gunes and others

have referred to as personal play identity.

The point is that if we look back

to our early adolescence,

somewhere between 10 and 14 years old,

a peak time for social development,

a peak time for play of various kinds,

a peak time for motor development,

a peak time of psychosocial development

where we learn where we fit into hierarchies

as we relate to members of the same sex,

of the opposite sex, et cetera,

we can start to get a portal into how

and why we show up to various activities

in work and relationship, et cetera, as adults.

In fact, I’ll venture to say

that if we go into that process for ourselves

for five or 10 minutes,

you start to see some remarkable parallels

between the way you were at that stage

and your tendencies and your preferences as adults.

We tend to look at our early childhood experiences

and our families and to some degree,

our friends in terms of how we become who we become.

I’ve talked about the incredible work of Alan Shore

on previous episodes of the podcast.

Alan Shore is a psychiatrist

and has done extensive work on how parent-child interactions

in particular baby and mother,

but also baby and father shape the brain

and the brain and emotional systems ability

to go from states of elation and excitement,

the so-called dopamine epinephrine type circuitry

to the more warm, soothing types of calm interactions

that in broad terms could be described

as more serotonin, oxytocin and things of that sort.

That work really points to the key roles

that the caregiver and the child, you,

engaged in an early life.

And that is incredible work.

I do hope to host Dr. Shore on the podcast

at some point in the not too distant future.

But equally important, of course,

are the interactions that we export

from that early laying down of biological circuitry

and psychological circuitry to the way we play by ourselves

and the way we play with others

in small numbers or in great numbers.

And of course it would be the case

that how we played as a 10 or 12-year-old

would impact how we behave as a 16-year-old

and as a 20-year-old and as a 30-year-old

and so on and so on.

One of my favorite things about developmental biology

and developmental psychology is that it is grounded

in the fact that we don’t just have a childhood

and an adulthood.

There isn’t just our child self and our adult self.

And even though there are transitions

around the mechanisms that underlie neuroplasticity

at approximately age 25,

it is simply the case that development

is our entire lifespan,

that our lifespan is one long developmental arc.

How long depends on our genetics, our lifestyle,

accidents, injury, and disease, of course,

but it is one long developmental arc.

And so it shouldn’t surprise us at all

that how we learn to play as a 10-year-old or 12-year-old

would impact how we play and interact with people

as a teenager and a young adult and on and on and on.

And that play is the place in which we explore

and which we learn.

Play is the substrate by which our nervous system

changes us from this hyper-connected batch of neurons

where everything is connected to everything, more or less,

to a brain and nervous system

whereby certain circuits work with immense proficiency

and others are less accessible to us.

But again, the wonderful thing about the human nervous system

is that because it is plastic for the entire lifespan

and because these two elements of focus and rest

can be deployed again and again and again,

just because neural circuits didn’t form

does not mean that they can’t form later in life.

And today we’ve been focusing on how play itself,

the same substrate that we use during development

to become who we are,

is the portal by which we can change

who we are for the better.

So I hope I’ve convinced you that play

is an extremely important, fundamental,

homeostatically regulated aspect of our nervous system,

which is just a mouthful of nerd speak to say,

play can change your brain for the better.

And that is true for every stage of life.

The recommendation that I make,

and certainly the one that I’m going to direct it myself

as well, is to try and engage in at least one hour

of pure play per week.

Now, I came to that recommendation

because of the literature that says,

well, you need to engage in something pretty repetitively.

It should be novel.

So this wouldn’t be something

that you are exceptionally good at already.

If you insist on doing something

that you’re already exceptionally good at,

then you want to really do some free form,

low stakes tinkering.

So make it safe, but make it free form.

So really explore things with that.

Some people call this beginner’s mind,

although I find that a little abstract.

I like the notion of beginner’s mind,

but sort of like,

how do you know if you’re in beginner’s mind?

I think beginner’s mind is sort of the expectation

that you’re not going to do it well yet,

but play extends beyond beginner’s mind.

Play is really about not even worrying

if you’re going to get good at it or really proficient at it.

It’s really about exploring contingencies

with truly low stakes.

That’s what will allow you to access

these neurochemical combinations

of elevated endogenous opioids, low epinephrine, et cetera,

that will open up neuroplasticity.

For those of you that need a little more guidance

on how to play, there’s a book out there.

I actually learned about this from Tim Ferriss’ blog.

It’s called Play It Away, A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety.

So that’s more focused on anxiety.

The author is Charlie Hohn, last name H-O-E-H-N.

We’ll provide a link for it in the show notes and caption.

Play It Away, A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety.

But books and other resources aside,

I think one hour of play per week

is a reasonable amount of time

to engage in dedicated play behavior

for the purpose of opening up

these neural circuits for plasticity.

The key feature, of course,

is to not have immense proficiency in that given activity,

or at least not the way you perform it.

And if you do gain proficiency in that activity,

well, then it becomes something else.

It’s no longer about play, it’s about performance.

So in that case,

you would then want to adopt a new play behavior.

You’ll notice that I largely avoided

using the word fun throughout this episode.

Fun is a somewhat abstract term,

and like many emotions

and many verbal descriptions of experience,

it falls short in the context

of a neurobiological discussion about play.

If you have fun, terrific.

Some people might find, however,

that engaging in play is kind of uncomfortable.

Well, there, your goal then

should be to lower your level of discomfort

by focusing less on the outcomes

and just simply engaging in the behavior because,

well, I’m telling you that it’s good for you,

but hopefully you will tell yourself

that it’s good for you

and that you will experience that it’s good for you.

The literature certainly points to that.

And the literature certainly points to the fact

that play is the way that we are built.

We are built to play.

We have brain circuits from back to front

and within our body that are there for play,

and they don’t disappear.

They do not get pruned away

as we go from development to adulthood.

So if ever you needed a neurobiological explanation

for why play is important throughout the lifespan,

it’s that.

It’s that biology does not waste resources.

It’s extremely efficient.

And were the circuits for play

not to be important in adulthood,

they would have been pruned away.

But I guarantee you they are there

in your brain and nervous system now.

They will be there tomorrow

and they will be there going forward.

So my suggestion is that you use them one hour per week.

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and power of this thing that we call play.

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