Play Time – The Healthy Mind Platter (3/8)

Daily Life, Neuroscience, Theoretics

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Play time – The joy of experimenting with life

Play, which may seem like a frivolous, unimportant behavior with no apparent purpose, has earned new respect as biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists and others see that play is indeed serious business and is perhaps equally important to other basic drives of sleep, rest, and food. Neuroscience research reveals that play-joy is a basic emotional system and essential in child development and adult creativity and learning. It has been suggested that play is an important behavioral tendency that does not require learning, is an “experience-expectant” process that has adaptive neurodevelopmental effects which promote later adaptive behaviors and which help program higher brain regions involved in emotional behaviors.

According to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), free and unstructured play is healthy and in fact essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient. Forces threatening free play and unscheduled time include changes in family structure, the increasingly competitive college admissions process and federal education policies that have led to reduced recess and physical education in many schools. Play is not, however, only vital for children; it also appears to generate cognitive benefits for adults.

Based on his extensive research of play, Panksepp proposes that the play-joy system is one of the basic emotional systems in human beings similar to rage, fear, expectancy, panic, lust and the maternal nurturance-acceptance system. Research on rough-housing play in mammals, both sapient and otherwise, clearly indicates that the sources of play and laughter in the brain are instinctive and subcortical. Panksepp’s research revealed that if rats are tickled in a playful way, they readily emit 50-kHz chirps. Given that these chirps are indicative of positive affect and joy, they are probably comparable to human laughter. Although the human capacity for verbal joking probably requires more refined cortically dependent cognitive skills, language probably “tickles” the ancient play circuits of our minds and causes joy to occur. The rats that were tickled became socially bonded to the experimenters and were rapidly conditioned to seek tickles. The effect of juvenile isolation on these behaviors appears mainly due to deprivation of play. Therefore, play may serve to prepare for more adaptive social behaviors in adulthood. The early games and frivolity of animals and humans equip them for the skills they will need in later life.

Indeed, human play and laughter is fundamentally a social phenomenon. The reason one cannot tickle oneself may be because the underlying neural systems are controlled by social cues and interactions. These are factors that help weave individuals into the social fabric in which they reside, reflecting different levels of position and dominance. Following multiple play bouts, juvenile rats develop dominance hierarchies that remain relatively stable over the juvenile period. Preventing male rats from playing has lasting consequences on social, aggressive and sexual behavior. In human children, playing only in isolation has also been associated with social problems.

“Playfulness enhances the capacity to innovate, adapt, and master changing circumstances.
It is not just an escape. It can help us integrate and reconcile difficult or contradictory circumstances.
And, often, it can show us a way out of our problems.”

Stuart Brown, National institute for Play -
Neuroscientist and play expert Panksepp suggests that one reason for the increasing incidence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be the diminishing availability of opportunities for pre-school children to engage in natural self-generated social play. He suggests that instead of psychostimulants, at-risk children should be stimulated through play in order to facilitate frontal lobe maturation and the healthy development of pro-social minds. Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, founder of the National institute for Play, became interested in play when he found that 90% of the 26 murderers he studied had a common history of play deprivation or abnormal play. This is a sensible conclusion in the light of all the above because play seems to serve an important role in establishing relationships with positive effects. it is a safe way of learning about the “rules of the game” and developing adaptive social behavior. This is of vital importance in children, but is equally important in adults.

An important benefit of play is that it can facilitate learning. Research in rats has shown that play behavior is considered to be rewarding, as the opportunity to play can be used as an incentive for maze learning. Just as in rats, the reward circuits in the brain light up during human mirth. States of engaged attention between infants and their caregivers tend to be associated with play, states of joy, and general experiences of positive affect. As play-joy stimulates the reward centers in the brain and is associated with the release of dopamine, which facilitates the establishment and consolidation of new neuronal pathways, which in turn is important for creativity (new connections) and memory (lasting connections). A study by Garaigordobil Landazabal focusing on the impact of play on the intellectual development of school children aged 10–11 years demonstrated a significant effect of play on verbal intelligence, the ability to form concepts or define words, and on the capacity for verbal associative thinking. The intervention program consisted of a weekly 2-hour play session throughout the academic year.

In their review, spinka, Newberry and Bekoff propose that play enables animals to develop flexible emotional responses to unexpected events in which they experience a sudden loss of control. This loss of control has more than a symbolic significance for humans. indeed, it has been identified as one of the major causes of stress. In the same way that animals play to increase the versatility of movements to recover from sudden shocks such as loss of balance and falling over, young children learn to cope emotionally with unexpected stressful situations by “training for the unexpected.” Spinka and his colleagues suggest that the playful switching between in-control and out-of-control elements is cognitively demanding and is accompanied with neuroendocrinological responses that produce a complex emotional state known as “having fun”.

In other words, Mother Nature has provided us with a naturally rewarding activity – play – that allows both animals and humans to experiment with the demands of life itself, practice spontaneous and novel motor and social skills that will prove to be essential for survival in the concrete jungle.

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Source: NeuroLeadership Institute.

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