“Humans are the biggest players of all”

The aesthetic of the 21st century can be oppressively corporatist. Spontaneity, joy, and delight are smothered in never ending rat-race of pursuing wealth and success, climbing the corporate ladder, and being ultimately productive. While all of this has its place, people are not productivity machines. We need to play and relax as well. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul explains why humans aren’t just workers and doers, we’re also players.

The book was first published in 2009. At the time, it was one of the first popular introductions to the psychological, biological, and sociological impact of play. The author, doctor and consultant Stuart Brown, founded the National Institute for Play in order to research the concept and teach society how to take play seriously.

The book is written in an approachable, readable style. Brown weaves anecdotes with serious scientific research from across numerous disciplines to flesh out what play is and its role in human life. It should be noted that the book lacks footnotes, endnotes, and a bibliography.

Brown is clear from the outset, that play is a hard concept to define. He takes a general stab at it, though: play is any voluntary, iterative, and enjoyable activity that is undertaken for its own sake and involves the reduction of self-consciousness. It is pure leisure, done for no reason other than the pleasure of the activity itself.

Play is also recreational in the truest sense. Re-creation. Making new. Brown likens it to the restorative effect played by sleep and dreaming, both of which help us maintain a healthy and balanced psyche. He also cites several animal studies, where play deprived rats, for instance, showed significant reductions in cognitive development.

In humans, the powerful developmental role of play is visible in the strong bonds formed by the physical touch between a mother and her child, by the benefits of rough-and-tumble play, and many other things. Play teaches kids how interact with others in dynamic ways. It can help them get to the deeper meaning of things much better than rules imposed from on high.

Perhaps the most unique concept in the book is that of “play history.” According to Brown, each individual has their own unique play history, that is the particular games and activities that most delighted them in their formative years. These same activities can help guide adults in the pursuit of rejuvenating hobbies and even career choice. By way of negative example, he also highlights several cases of murderers and serial killers who were particularly play deprived as children.

On the flip side, Brown encourages everyone to scour their past to learn their own play history. You can revivify long dusty passions and talents to great effect, if you go looking for them. Knowing your play history, that is, knowing what gives you pure and simply joy, is a powerful tool for living a richer life.

Overall, the book is an intriguing introduction to the idea of play. Brown keeps the concept deliberately open-ended which does cause the book to be a bit vague at times. But it is truly thought provoking and offers real insight into an under-explored dimension of human psychology.

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul is available for purchase here.

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