Friday, December 4, 2009

Game on

The opposite of play is not work—it’s depression.

Express Staff Writer

Our cat Theo stands in the open doorway each morning, pondering that age-old choice between comfort and freedom. It sure is fun to go outside and play, but increasingly risky as the winter deepens and the sunlight wanes.

According to recent scientific research on play, Theo's choice may have some evolutionary significance beyond the well-known phenomenon of feline curiosity.

Psychiatrist and researcher Stuart L. Brown thinks that playing is a state of being different from all others, and represents an overlooked "survival drive" that is vital to the psychological and emotional development of animals, including humans.

He is founder of the National Institute for Play, which compiles research from scientists who are working in the neurosciences, developmental psychology, ethology and evolutionary biology—all related to the phenomenon of play.

Leave it to the academics to tell us what every fidgeting third-grader waiting for recess already knows. Now when I tell people I majored in Frisbee in college, I'll expect them to take me seriously. I was actually in training for my career.

Brown first recognized the importance of play by discovering its absence in the life stories of murderers and felons. He found that play deprivation in childhood often leads to emotional problems as an adult, despite how comfortable and prosperous a family's circumstances might be.

Brown went on to study play across the animal kingdom, finding that many species other than our own engage in play of all kinds, including sea lions, dogs and polar bears. He says that true play doesn't happen without a measure of reasonable risk.

Brown believes that human beings first learn how to play from baby talk and giggles from Mom. He says we then learn how to establish essential relationships with rough-and-tumble play, and that toying with objects can lead to valuable problem-solving skills down the road. In a general sense, Brown describes play as an "exploration of the possible," which can lead to an "increased repertoire of responses" to the challenges of life.

Brown says that the opposite of play is not work—it's depression.

Brown no longer practices medicine, but encourages people to take "play histories" of themselves to recall the most blissful moments of play in their lives.

"Experiences of play are closest to the highest state of bliss that a person can achieve. Play is spiritual at its core," he says.

The next time you face a predicament, flip a coin to decide whether to pray or play.

Tony Evans:

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