[Excerpted from the book, Life Incorporated, by Halley Bock]
On August 1, 1966, the world came to standstill. It was the day Charles Whitman climbed a tower at the University of Texas and opened fire, killing sixteen people and marking the largest mass killing in the United States at the time. In response, then governor of Texas, John Connally, pulled together the most extensive and comprehensive group of researchers, psychologists, and experts he could find to understand how something like this happens. He wanted to know what it was that could incite such violence in an individual. His hope, of course, was to lessen these occurrences by understanding the factors that conspired to create a Charles Whitman and other violent offenders.
Included in that team was Stuart Brown. At the time, Brown, a psychiatrist at Baylor College of Medicine, was put in charge of analyzing the data. The team was concerned about whether such an extensive, broad study could yield any conclusive findings. It was the first large-scale study of its kind, and the potential for data overload was high. Would there—could there—be any significant takeaways from so many experts looking across so many spectrums? The answer turned out to be a resounding “yes”.
The first pattern that emerged was that every subject in the study had a history of restricted play. Whitman, for example, had not been allowed to have unstructured time. His overbearing, controlling father simply had not tolerated play. The findings were so significant to Brown, the implications of losing play as an element in childhood and adulthood were so strong, that he eventually left clinical medicine and founded the National Institute for Play, a nonprofit corporation committed to bringing the unrealized knowledge, practices, and benefits of play into public life.
This isn’t to say that if we all stop participating in play we’ll end up morally depraved and homicidal. To make a blanket statement like that would be a leap of epic proportions. What Brown’s findings do indicate is that the expression of play is essential to our ability to regulate emotions, to create, to adapt, to forge and reinforce bonds with one another, to develop compassion for ourselves and others, and to ease stress.
It was Brown who introduced me to one of my new favorite terms, “psychological neoteny,” the retention of immature qualities into adulthood. Contrary to its association with immaturity, psychological neoteny is actually a fairly evolved and special trait. Humans are one of the most plastic and neotenic species on the planet, which gives us a huge leg up on adaptability because these immature traits include affection, sociality, playfulness, and curiosity. These qualities are essential and powerful when we are faced with change; they allow us to break up the cement around our feet and look for new solutions, new possibilities.
This is why humans have evolved to the extent that we have. Our ability to play, to retain some “immaturity,” has real benefits! Any self-critical naysayers who believe, as I used to, that play is a waste of time have an opportunity here to shift a belief. To engage in play is to build and maintain an important muscle in our evolutionary progress, not to mention our much-needed, day-to-day ability to adapt to change.
“The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.”
—Brian Sutton-Smith, developmental psychologist and educator
What Is Play?
If we understand that play is important — that there is a real cost when we don’t participate in it and substantial benefit when we do — we need to understand what, exactly, play is. In his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown defines play through the following seven properties:
- Apparent Purposelessness: Play is done for its own sake, with no apparent survival value.
- Voluntary: Play is not obligatory or required by duty.
- Inherent Attraction: It’s fun. Play makes you feel good.
- Freedom from Time: We lose a sense of the passage of time.
- Diminished Consciousness of Self: We stop worrying about how we are perceived. We are fully in the moment.
- Improvisational Potential: We aren’t locked into a rigid way of doing things. We never really know what’s going to happen.
- Continuation Desire: We desire to keep doing it, wish to extend it.
So according to Brown, we engage in play out of our own free will, and it is time spent without purpose. It’s time we wish we could extend and time we lose track of. Play is adventurous, and it’s something that makes us feel good — when we are engaged in play we don’t care about how we are being perceived. Gosh! When was the last time you did something like that? Something that had absolutely no purpose? Something that you enjoyed so much you didn’t give a rat’s ass about what others thought of you while you were doing it?
When I was first looking at play in my own life, I initially thought that participating in triathlons — swimming, running, and cycling — were my expressions of play. I hung on to this notion for quite some time. In fact, it wasn’t until I thoroughly reread my research on play that I realized I had gotten it backward. While those activities all have the potential to be play, how I engage in them most of the time doesn’t fit the criteria for play after all.
Yes, those activities make me feel good. Yes, I often lose sense of time. And yes, I wish I could stop time so I could continue to do them. But there is a purpose to engaging in those activities, a clear purpose. The time I spend training is time spent to improve upon something whether it’s my speed, my form, my tempo, my endurance, my strength, or my flexibility. And because those activities are often scheduled according to a training program, there can be a sense of duty or obligation to complete them. As much as I wanted to think of my training as play, turns out it isn’t. It’s an avocation.
That said, if you dropped me in the ocean with a pair of goggles I would be at play. You can forget your plans for me, your expectations, your whatever. When I’m in the ocean, I’m there to do one thing: Be one with the ocean and my body. I float on the water, rolling with the waves, and I search for sea turtles and shiny things on the ocean floor. I get distracted by groups of fish darting by, often following them to see if they’ll lead me to a magical fairyland of sea turtles. I’m not kidding. As serious as I can be in life, I still believe in magic, and the ocean is often where I connect with my neotenic characteristics. Hours can go by without me knowing it. And I become that kid who finds excuse after excuse to spend just one more minute in the ocean before finally being dragged out by my family. That is play.
Dancing is another form of play for me. Others are hiking, playing beach volleyball, taking spontaneous bike rides, and hopping into the car with good friends and good music and driving until we’re lost while singing at the top of our lungs.
During a recent date night, my wife and I discovered another expression of play. After dinner, we were strolling through a neighborhood when we found a dive bar packed full of pinball machines. We tentatively crept in, and before we knew it, we were both slamming on pinball machines while feeding the old-fashioned change machine dollar after dollar. We laughed, we were appalled by our lack of pinball skills, we high-fived, we had an amazing time, and I still have no idea how long we were there All I know is that it didn’t matter All of a sudden, getting back to the babysitter became a lost thought and we were twenty-somethings again. That was play.