“Play doesn’t just help us to explore what is essential. It is essential in and of itself.”
— Greg McKeown
“Bob Fagan, a researcher who has spent fifteen years studying the behavior of grizzly bears, discovered bears who played the most tended to survive the longest.” Jaak Panksepp concluded something similar in Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, where he wrote, “One thing is certain, during play, animals are especially prone to behave in flexible and creative ways.”
In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg Mckeown argues that “when we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality.”
Play expands our minds in ways that allow us to explore: to germinate new ideas or see old ideas in a new light. It makes us more inquisitive, more attuned to novelty, more engaged.
Play fuels exploration in at least three ways.
First, play broadens the range of options available to us. It helps us to see possibilities we otherwise wouldn’t have seen and make connections we would otherwise not have made. It opens our minds and broadens our perspective. It helps us challenge old assumptions and makes us more receptive to untested ideas . It gives us permission to expand our own stream of consciousness and come up with new stories.
Or as Albert Einstein once said, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”*
Second, play is an antidote to stress, and this is key because stress, in addition to being an enemy of productivity, can actually shut down the creative, inquisitive, exploratory parts of our brain. You know how it feels: you’re stressed about work and suddenly everything starts going wrong. You can’t find your keys, you bump into things more easily, you forget the critical report on the kitchen table. Recent findings suggest this is because stress increases the activity in the part of the brain that monitors emotions (the amygdala), while reducing the activity in the part responsible for cognitive function (the hippocampus)—the result being, simply, that we really can’t think clearly.
Play causes stress to (temporarily) melt away.
Finally, as Edward M. Hallowell, a psychiatrist who specializes in brain science, explains, play has a positive effect on the brain. “The brain’s executive functions,” he writes in Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People, “include planning, prioritizing, scheduling, anticipating, delegating, deciding, analyzing— in short, most of the skills any executive must master to excel in business.” Play stimulates parts of the brain involved in logical reasoning and carefree exploration.
Columbus was at play when it dawned on him that the world was round. Newton was at play in his mind when he saw the apple tree and suddenly conceived of the force of gravity. Watson and Crick were playing with possible shapes of the DNA molecule when they stumbled upon the double helix. Shakespeare played with iambic pentameter his whole life. Mozart barely lived a waking moment when he was not at play. Einstein’s thought experiments are brilliant examples of the mind invited to play.
Perhaps Roald Dahl said it best: “A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men.”
* As found in János: The Story of a Doctor