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Week 3 | Play is Essential to Human Intelligence and Innovation: The Power of Play and Why I Go To B

Audio Guide


I am 30 something years old and I love to dance around my bedroom with my roommate's cat - yes he runs away from me most times, but his disinterest doesn’t preclude me from getting down like nobody's watching - I hope nobody's watching...

My name is Nana I am an adult who loves to play.

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, the Ted Radio Hour by NPR and in one particular episode called, ‘Press Play’, my pursuit to play was scientifically justified! Yes, I am over the age of 7, but I have a playful personality and apparently this is great for both health and happiness.

Why Should We Play Even Into Adulthood?

What is play? Google defines it as engaging 'in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose’.

Dr. Stuart Brown when interviewed in the Ted podcast explained “from birth to death there is a presence in our being for playfulness”. We are wired to play and we shouldn’t stop as we get older.

Dr. Brown describes an experiment done in a dementia ward where “when you bring play into a dementia setting that is specified for the play type that that person once enjoyed..their need for medication and their level of agitation goes down as they get playful”. Dr. Brown goes on to reveal that there is evidence that within the animal world, when put to play the brain lights up, empathy for others is increased, mood is elevated and connectedness is ensured.

Play is Essential to Our Intelligence

Dr. Brown goes on to explain that play maybe essential to our intelligence and evolution; “play maybe pretty important for our see [these results] in other mammals especially intelligent ones. What you see from their play is that clearly they explore options that they wouldn't explore otherwise if they hadn't played...The capacity for play seems to me to allow us to take in novelty and newness. We use it to adapt and become more flexible”.

When you don’t innovative, you don’t change - the world passes you by. A key to innovation and staying afloat is play. Perhaps you might consider dancing too or pick up a ball and start tossing it around with friends, maybe even a trip to Burning Man, the ultimate adult playground, would do, Brown suggests.

I personally have been to Burning Man twice and I am starting to plan for my third trip out to the Nevada desert later this year. One of my friends calls this strange happening a playground for over achievers and it's true. I have never met such high functioning humans - 70,000 CEOs, founders, bankers, creatives, innovators, artists and hippies mixed in between, cooperating and running a fully functioning temporary city, built from the dust up. For 8 days it is nothing but smiles, love, getting lost in day dreams and play. I can smile at a stranger and they smile back. No one is stuck on their phones out there - humans are humans, empathy is amplified.

With play a seeming requisite for innovation, is it any wonder that some of today's leaders in science and technology, including Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, have been to Burning Man? In fact, it is widely known that the head of Google, Eric Schmidt, was hired by Google's founders because he was the only candidate out of the potential lot who had been.

Play is Key to Survival and Innovation

But wait there's more; Primatologist, Behncke Izquierdo through her study of bonobos has discovered even more that playing around by yourself or with others is linked to one's ability to adapt in challenging times, intelligence, tolerance, trust, and creativity; “[Bonobos and Humans] share a common root for play. Our reward system in our brains, it's overdeveloped. We have a capacity for positive emotion and joy that has been an important drive in our evolution...I realized maybe there is something about the complexity of play in particular adult play that is related to intelligence, creativity, to trust, maybe play is essential for their survival...Adult play is a root for personal transformation. The sheer effect of experiencing joy liberates and changes people at their core”.

In ever changing and challenging times like these, why wouldn’t you look to play to give you an advantage, Izquierdo emphasizes; “We need to adapt to an increasingly challenging world through greater creativity and greater cooperation. The secret is that play is the key to these capacities. In other words play is our adaptive wild card. In order to adapt successfully to a changing world we need to play. Bonobos are human alike. In times when it seems least appropriate to play, might be the time when it is most urgent”.

How do you play?

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