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  • So, here we go: a flyby of play.

  • It's got to be serious if the New York Times

  • puts a cover story of their February 17th Sunday magazine about play.

  • At the bottom of this, it says, "It's deeper than gender.

  • Seriously, but dangerously fun.

  • And a sandbox for new ideas about evolution."

  • Not bad, except if you look at that cover, what's missing?

  • You see any adults?

  • Well, lets go back to the 15th century.

  • This is a courtyard in Europe,

  • and a mixture of 124 different kinds of play.

  • All ages, solo play, body play, games, taunting.

  • And there it is. And I think this is a typical picture

  • of what it was like in a courtyard then.

  • I think we may have lost something in our culture.

  • So I'm gonna take you through

  • what I think is a remarkable sequence.

  • North of Churchill, Manitoba, in October and November,

  • there's no ice on Hudson Bay.

  • And this polar bear that you see, this 1200-pound male,

  • he's wild and fairly hungry.

  • And Norbert Rosing, a German photographer,

  • is there on scene, making a series of photos of these huskies, who are tethered.

  • And from out of stage left comes this wild, male polar bear,

  • with a predatory gaze.

  • Any of you who've been to Africa or had a junkyard dog come after you,

  • there is a fixed kind of predatory gaze

  • that you know you're in trouble.

  • But on the other side of that predatory gaze

  • is a female husky in a play bow, wagging her tail.

  • And something very unusual happens.

  • That fixed behavior -- which is rigid and stereotyped

  • and ends up with a meal -- changes.

  • And this polar bear

  • stands over the husky,

  • no claws extended, no fangs taking a look.

  • And they begin an incredible ballet.

  • A play ballet.

  • This is in nature: it overrides a carnivorous nature

  • and what otherwise would have been a short fight to the death.

  • And if you'll begin to look closely at the husky that's bearing her throat to the polar bear,

  • and look a little more closely, they're in an altered state.

  • They're in a state of play.

  • And it's that state

  • that allows these two creatures to explore the possible.

  • They are beginning to do something that neither would have done

  • without the play signals.

  • And it is a marvelous example

  • of how a differential in power

  • can be overridden by a process of nature that's within all of us.

  • Now how did I get involved in this?

  • John mentioned that I've done some work with murderers, and I have.

  • The Texas Tower murderer opened my eyes,

  • in retrospect, when we studied his tragic mass murder,

  • to the importance of play,

  • in that that individual, by deep study,

  • was found to have severe play deprivation.

  • Charles Whitman was his name.

  • And our committee, which consisted of a lot of hard scientists,

  • did feel at the end of that study

  • that the absence of play and a progressive suppression of developmentally normal play

  • led him to be more vulnerable to the tragedy that he perpetrated.

  • And that finding has stood the test of time --

  • unfortunately even into more recent times, at Virginia Tech.

  • And other studies of populations at risk

  • sensitized me to the importance of play,

  • but I didn't really understand what it was.

  • And it was many years in taking play histories of individuals

  • before I really began to recognize that I didn't really have a full understanding of it.

  • And I don't think any of us has a full understanding of it, by any means.

  • But there are ways of looking at it

  • that I think can give you -- give us all a taxonomy, a way of thinking about it.

  • And this image is, for humans, the beginning point of play.

  • When that mother and infant lock eyes,

  • and the infant's old enough to have a social smile,

  • what happens -- spontaneously -- is the eruption of joy on the part of the mother.

  • And she begins to babble and coo and smile, and so does the baby.

  • If we've got them wired up with an electroencephalogram,

  • the right brain of each of them becomes attuned,

  • so that the joyful emergence of this earliest of play scenes

  • and the physiology of that is something we're beginning to get a handle on.

  • And I'd like you to think that every bit of more complex play

  • builds on this base for us humans.

  • And so now I'm going to take you through sort of a way of looking at play,

  • but it's never just singularly one thing.

  • We're going to look at body play,

  • which is a spontaneous desire to get ourselves out of gravity.

  • This is a mountain goat.

  • If you're having a bad day, try this:

  • jump up and down, wiggle around -- you're going to feel better.

  • And you may feel like this character,

  • who is also just doing it for its own sake.

  • It doesn't have a particular purpose, and that's what's great about play.

  • If its purpose is more important

  • than the act of doing it, it's probably not play.

  • And there's a whole other type of play, which is object play.

  • And this Japanese macaque has made a snowball,

  • and he or she's going to roll down a hill.

  • And -- they don't throw it at each other, but this is a fundamental part of being playful.

  • The human hand, in manipulation of objects,

  • is the hand in search of a brain;

  • the brain is in search of a hand;

  • and play is the medium by which those two are linked in the best way.

  • JPL we heard this morning -- JPL is an incredible place.

  • They have located two consultants,

  • Frank Wilson and Nate Johnson,

  • who are -- Frank Wilson is a neurologist, Nate Johnson is a mechanic.

  • He taught mechanics in a high school in Long Beach,

  • and found that his students were no longer able to solve problems.

  • And he tried to figure out why. And he came to the conclusion, quite on his own,

  • that the students who could no longer solve problems, such as fixing cars,

  • hadn't worked with their hands.

  • Frank Wilson had written a book called "The Hand."

  • They got together -- JPL hired them.

  • Now JPL, NASA and Boeing,

  • before they will hire a research and development problem solver --

  • even if they're summa cum laude from Harvard or Cal Tech --

  • if they haven't fixed cars, haven't done stuff with their hands early in life,

  • played with their hands, they can't problem-solve as well.

  • So play is practical, and it's very important.

  • Now one of the things about play is that it is born by curiosity and exploration. (Laughter)

  • But it has to be safe exploration.

  • This happens to be OK -- he's an anatomically interested little boy

  • and that's his mom. Other situations wouldn't be quite so good.

  • But curiosity, exploration, are part of the play scene.

  • If you want to belong, you need social play.

  • And social play is part of what we're about here today,

  • and is a byproduct of the play scene.

  • Rough and tumble play.

  • These lionesses, seen from a distance, looked like they were fighting.

  • But if you look closely, they're kind of like the polar bear and husky:

  • no claws, flat fur, soft eyes,

  • open mouth with no fangs, balletic movements,

  • curvilinear movements -- all specific to play.

  • And rough-and-tumble play is a great learning medium for all of us.

  • Preschool kids, for example, should be allowed to dive, hit, whistle,

  • scream, be chaotic, and develop through that a lot of emotional regulation

  • and a lot of the other social byproducts -- cognitive, emotional and physical --

  • that come as a part of rough and tumble play.

  • Spectator play, ritual play -- we're involved in some of that.

  • Those of you who are from Boston know that this was the moment -- rare --

  • where the Red Sox won the World Series.

  • But take a look at the face and the body language of everybody

  • in this fuzzy picture, and you can get a sense that they're all at play.

  • Imaginative play.

  • I love this picture because my daughter, who's now almost 40, is in this picture,

  • but it reminds me of her storytelling and her imagination,

  • her ability to spin yarns at this age -- preschool.

  • A really important part of being a player

  • is imaginative solo play.

  • And I love this one, because it's also what we're about.

  • We all have an internal narrative that's our own inner story.

  • The unit of intelligibility of most of our brains is the story.

  • I'm telling you a story today about play.

  • Well, this bushman, I think, is talking about the fish that got away that was that long,

  • but it's a fundamental part of the play scene.

  • So what does play do for the brain?

  • Well, a lot.

  • We don't know a whole lot about what it does for the human brain,

  • because funding has not been exactly heavy for research on play.

  • I walked into the Carnegie asking for a grant.

  • They'd given me a large grant when I was an academician

  • for the study of felony drunken drivers, and I thought I had a pretty good track record,

  • and by the time I had spent half an hour talking about play,

  • it was obvious that they were not -- did not feel that play was serious.

  • I think that -- that's a few years back -- I think that wave is past,

  • and the play wave is cresting,

  • because there is some good science.

  • Nothing lights up the brain like play.

  • Three-dimensional play fires up the cerebellum,

  • puts a lot of impulses into the frontal lobe --

  • the executive portion -- helps contextual memory be developed,

  • and -- and, and, and.

  • So it's -- for me, its been an extremely nourishing scholarly adventure

  • to look at the neuroscience that's associated with play, and to bring together people

  • who in their individual disciplines hadn't really thought of it that way.

  • And that's part of what the National Institute for Play is all about.

  • And this is one of the ways you can study play --

  • is to get a 256-lead electroencephalogram.

  • I'm sorry I don't have a playful-looking subject, but it allows mobility,

  • which has limited the actual study of play.

  • And we've got a mother-infant play scenario

  • that we're hoping to complete underway at the moment.

  • The reason I put this here is also to queue up

  • my thoughts about objectifying what play does.

  • The animal world has objectified it.

  • In the animal world, if you take rats,

  • who are hardwired to play at a certain period of their juvenile years

  • and you suppress play -- they squeak, they wrestle,

  • they pin each other, that's part of their play.

  • If you stop that behavior on one group that you're experimenting with,

  • and you allow it in another group that you're experimenting with,

  • and then you present those rats

  • with a cat odor-saturated collar,

  • they're hardwired to flee and hide.

  • Pretty smart -- they don't want to get killed by a cat.

  • So what happens?

  • They both hide out.

  • The non-players never come out --

  • they die.

  • The players slowly explore the environment,

  • and begin again to test things out.

  • That says to me, at least in rats --

  • and I think they have the same neurotransmitters that we do

  • and a similar cortical architecture --

  • that play may be pretty important for our survival.

  • And, and, and -- there are a lot more animal studies that I could talk about.

  • Now, this is a consequence of play deprivation. (Laughter)

  • This took a long time --

  • I had to get Homer down and put him through the fMRI and the SPECT

  • and multiple EEGs, but as a couch potato, his brain has shrunk.

  • And we do know that in domestic animals

  • and others, when they're play deprived,

  • they don't -- and rats also -- they don't develop a brain that is normal.

  • Now, the program says that the opposite of play is not work,

  • it's depression.

  • And I think if you think about life without play --

  • no humor, no flirtation, no movies,

  • no games, no fantasy and, and, and.

  • Try and imagine a culture or a life, adult or otherwise

  • without play.

  • And the thing that's so unique about our species

  • is that we're really designed to play through our whole lifetime.

  • And we all have capacity to play signal.

  • Nobody misses that dog I took a picture of on a Carmel beach a couple of weeks ago.

  • What's going to follow from that behavior

  • is play.

  • And you can trust it.

  • The basis of human trust is established through play signals.

  • And we begin to lose those signals, culturally and otherwise, as adults.

  • That's a shame.

  • I think we've got a lot of learning to do.

  • Now, Jane Goodall has here a play face along with one of her favorite chimps.

  • So part of the signaling system of play

  • has to do with vocal, facial, body, gestural.

  • You know, you can tell -- and I think when we're getting into collective play,

  • its really important for groups to gain a sense of safety

  • through their own sharing of play signals.

  • You may not know this word,

  • but it should be your biological first name and last name.

  • Because neoteny means the retention of immature qualities into adulthood.

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