The Big Idea
Play or die! When you stop making connections, learning new things, then your brain actually really starts to die. Some would even say that when you stop enjoying life, is the time when you start to ‘lose’ in the ‘game of life’.
Sure money can be an indicator of ‘success’ and even buy ‘toys’ but do they really give us the ability to play?
Talking about this together at 52HQ we were amazed, surprised and a little embarrassed at how, even though we think ourselves as fun, we have gotten out of the habit of playing. And when we do play, it’s only when we feel that we have time and that’s most likely when we’ve finished our work.
Thing is, play is not efficient, it’s not grown up – we have come to see it as an add-on if we are ‘good’ and done our work.
Sure there are those that play sport but that’s sport right? Sport is for a reason, it’s serious.
Well yes and no. Thing is so many mammals like apes and dogs play as a part of their everyday lives, even when it seems all a bit cute and frivolous, even dangerous, to us. Thing is, nature doesn’t do things by accident. Put it another way if play has remained (been conserved) in evolutionary terms- then surely there must be some good reasons for it? And if there are, could we, with all our sophistication of being human ‘grown ups’, be missing something that most of us found literally childs’ play when we were children?
In this tip we were joined by the wonderful Sara Sibai, who lives in Beirut, and co-founded with her husband an amazing company L3b that reconnects businesses and work teams with the value and joy of play for performance and wellbeing.
Play is in fact such an important part of the innovation process that inventors and entrepreneurs such as Sir James Dyson, of Dyson cleaners fame, introduced a monthly play day for staff, where employees can literally play in other departments – for the sake of seeing what they can do and make together.
So the big idea is that play is a concept, state of mind or mindset that we have probably told ourselves we don’t need to be an adult. And it’s another lie that we have fallen for and told ourselves! Play it turns out is an essential part of life and missing out means you are literally missing out on (more) life. What’s more this play is not really about winning…
Got it…What’s the Science
When we play we enact situations that could be useful for us. In animals this is often to prepare for survival and to being independent or ‘grown up’. That said many animals continue to play throughout their lives including us humans. When we get enjoyment from some activities we obviously get a dopamine boost, especially if we win or do better than we thought that we would. Obviously play involving a certain degree of physical activity helps with getting our bodies’ fitter through strength and conditioning, loosen us up as well as ‘burn off’ tension and lead to the release of euphoric endorphins. Thing is play is often as much about the what’s going on in the mind and between minds as it is about the physical challenge and fitness.
We are very creative beings – if we let ourselves. As children we do tend to let ourselves go to the imaginary and the possible in a way that as adults we can be far more closed off to. Perhaps this is not too surprising if we consider how our brains develop. As our brain grows the number of neural connections generally available is greater. In theory this means that we can encode situations and our responses more diversely as children. We (and our brains) are literally more ‘fluid’ and adaptive. Add to this, children have a lesser developed prefrontal frontal cortex (PFC). Part of the PFC’s general role is to inhibit inappropriate behaviour. So this means that as children we don’t tend to inhibit or judge what an adult might consider inappropriate behaviour. As adults we can ‘regress’ when drinking alcohol, which represses this downward inhibition – often to amusing, sometimes painful and embarrassing consequences…
So children with their more numerous connective possibilities and less self-judgement, means that they do have more possibilities, even if the trade off is they have less certainty. The saddest part here for us is that much of how we educate children is to have the ‘right’ or correct answer. Rather than other valued answers – which, let’s face it, is far more real world. Famously, Niels Bohr, an eminent 20th century physicist was able to ‘see’ problems more clearly for what they were rather than what they were supposed to be – much to the annoyance of those teaching and testing him.
The Nobel Prize winning physiologist and medic Gerald Eldelman put forth a model of neural evolution where associations that were positive were strengthened and retained (like Hebb’s Postulate: ‘neurones that fire together. wire together’). Computer and robot modelling showed that this stands up. So in theory the more we practice and the more diverse our play the more we retain the ability to make random connections. As we move from childhood to adulthood we go through a period of significant ‘neural pruning’ or ‘synaptic pruning’ . This means we tend to swop creativity for efficiency. Ultimately this means fewer possibilities with a much greater reliance on thinking and actions that have gotten us to the point of being an adult. This means, as adults, the time between stimulus and historically useful reactions is reduced. This is a evolutionary survival thing: quick reactions used to be the difference between life and death after all. In terms of our selfish gene(s), as Prof Richard Dawkins would put it, the objective is to get us to be able to know what sort of challenges we are likely to face, then make us quick at reacting and then pass on these skills to offspring, who then also retain the ability to see and do things more creatively in case the ‘game of life’ has changed in the meantime…
But we also know that the brain remains ‘plastic’ into adult life. Where and how the brain is challenged will be how it adapts and develop throughout life. After all, we can still learn new languages and skills throughout our lives. Like a muscle then the more we can practice making random mental connections and associations the more likely that we are to keep and even strengthen our abilities to be creative and flexible in how we interpret and interact with the World – most importantly with people. Humour, which we have come across in #Tip41 is undoubtedly important here too. Humour shared allows us to ‘play’ together with metaphors and concepts, whilst temporarily not needing to get it right. Through humour, we literally encourage and celebrate the tangibles and double meanings – suspending many if the consequences – and enjoy it. We’d argue this is play.
Now here’s the real science magic. The problem with only having our own brain to bring to play is that it is always going to limit the ‘game’. The experiences that have shaped how we think, to make our ‘paradigms’ and ‘schemas’, come from a limited lifetime of experience. Most of us also tend to interpret the World in certain ways and communicate and reinforce that (make it true) to ourselves. Play can change this. It can unlock other perspectives and other ways you and those that you are involving in the play, can ‘see’ and envision. Dr James Carse spoke of these types of games as ‘Infinite Games’ where the object is to invite others to create more options and opportunities and to continue to ‘play’. The objective of “Infinite Games’ is to invite as many other players along the way and to so to keep playing the game. Do you remember when you invited others to play in your imaginary games at school and then those players added to the game? In contrast. ‘Finite Games’ limit the number of players and the outcomes to winner and losers – like many sports. Sure ‘Finite Games’ have their place in competition – but we are hoping you are also seeing why ‘Infinite Games’ are ultimately more fruitful in and to life.
This is why our special guest Sara Sibai is such an advocate for play as a way of connecting, getting ‘meta-thinking’, communication and outcomes that is essential for the kind of thinking that we are going to need in the 21st century. To frame what Einstein said ‘the thinking that got us here is not going to get us there’. In other words we need play to survive and thrive in the wake of the problems we have largely created for ourselves on this planet like Climate Change and plastic pollution.
So play is actually being more ‘grown up’ than trying to be ‘grown up’…
Watch our #Tip50 on the Instagram Live Recording….
With Dulcie, special guest Sara Sibai and Dr Iain – feeling the fun of play!
The Infinite Game with Dr. James Carse – Simon Sinek’s Little Bit of Optimism podcast
Play is probably one of the best ways to get out of or protect yourself and those that you live and work with from ‘Group Think’. Play also helps you to remain young, literally. Play also can connect across generations in a way other types of communication struggle. It is even thought that being playful helps you live longer.
Play is now recognised that many companies recognise the need for play in terms of wellbeing and innovation. As we said, every month Dyson employers at the Malmesbury site are encouraged to have a play day in another department. Far from being frivolous play is the spice of life and can even be part of why we find play in sex – as in foreplay!
Where could you start rejuvenating your play life today?
Watch this space… Why not tell us some of your play stories.
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