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A playful look at the science of play,
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This review is from: Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (Paperback)
Most books I've read about play approach it via (academic) sociology, (gaming) technology or (educational) psychology. Brown does something different. He takes a biological approach, as befits his background and credentials. He examines play from an evolutionary and developmental viewpoint, a heavy-sounding agenda, but one that Brown makes feel unexpectedly fresh and light. He achieves this by mixing his facts with personal narrative, photo sequences, assessment instruments and applications aplenty.
Here are some of the book's key concepts that struck me.
Play properties. With reticence, Brown provides a list of the necessary ingredients of 'true play': it must be apparently purposeless, voluntary, and possess inherent attraction, freedom from time, a diminished consciousness of self, improvational potential, and continuation desire (17).
Play drive. In the animal kingdom, those who play the best, survive the best (31). Play allows pretend rehearsal for the challenges of life, and increased social skills. In fact, play makes us smarter. There is a positive link between brain size / frontal cortex development and play. During play, the brain engages in 'simulations' and creates connections that did not exist before. Brown draws on the biology of "neoteny" to explain human primacy among mammals (55-58): we spend longer as children, therefore play longer, therefore are smarter.
Play deficit. Just as sleep deprivation leads to ill health, so play deficiency can lead to mental illness (43). Play can counteract depression (6); continuing play can prevent its recurrence (151). Brown has studied depressed women who were successfully treated through distance running (214).
Play state. Brown argues that play is essentially a state of mind rather than an activity (60) although movement can help us get into this state (84, 150, and 213-4). A play state consists in openness to novelty and risk (173). As I anticipated, Brown relates this play state to Csikszentmihalyi's 'flow' experience (17). He also relates it to another of my favorite thinker's ideas: Joseph Campbell's 'bliss' (202-4, see also 213 and 118).
Play personality. Brown proposes eight archetypes that offer us a chance to analyse our own play style - joker, kinesthete, explorer, competitor, director, collector, artist/creator and storyteller (65-70). I love the idea that there are multiple ways to play, and that each is an expression of our personality, neither right nor wrong.
Play types. There is no one way to play. Play can involve body and movement, imagination, social interaction, friendship and belonging, rough-and-tumble (are you listening out there, all you mothers with sons?), celebration and ritual, storytelling and narrative, transformation and creativity (83-94).
Play benefits. Brown claims that play enhances memory (100) and produces a right attitude towards life (114, 174). In the workplace, play can increases emotional intelligence (32), creativity and innovation (134), and aids in skills mastery (141).
Play history. This was a new one to me. Brown uses this method to enable people to get back to that natural sense of playfulness we had as children. He provides some useful advice on how to go about this task (206-210 - see also 26, 63, 152).
Play spirituality. Drawing on Darwinist and Hindu concepts, Brown suggests that the universe itself is playful (44-5). This reminded me of the medieval notion of 'ludus amoris' or divine play.
If I have to criticise, then there are two points to note. Throughout the book Brown interacts with and quotes from an amazing number of primary sources, most of whom are experts in the field with whom he has worked. Apart from a list of acknowledgements at the back, there are no references, footnotes, endnotes or equivalents. Yet although I drool over such details, and missed their absence, I must ask myself, would their inclusion have jammed and jolted the playful flow of my reading experience?
Secondly, I sense that Brown is at his weakest when facing the dark side of play. Brown has a simple and repeated method of dispensing with evidence that play may be addictive, violent, manipulative or selfish. He classifies such play as "not really playing" (178 - 182, 193). Hay-presto, the problem vanishes. For me, this is too easy a turn. If play prepares the brain for evolutionary struggle and adaptation, then it must contain all the elements of life itself, not just the nice parts of it.
You can see the author in action in a TED Talk called "Play is more than fun". This provides a good summary of the book, but, as always, the book is way better.