May 31, 2016 Seattle, WA
I cautiously ride my 15 year-old Honda CRF 230 around the homemade motocross track in our big backyard in “The Heart of the Cascades.” Riding the acre circuit of whoops, bermed corners, jumps, and sharp curves is a new experience for me. I’m not an expert dirtbike rider by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve handled it on single track well-enough to go over rocks, roots, and small logs. I relax into the taste of dust and the feel of soft earth, allowing my gently increasing confidence take me into lap two. By lap four, I’m well aware that I’m not riding balls to the wall, what I’m noticing is a sense of freedom, calm, and um…dare I say, glee. I’m a giggling 8 year-old and my insides are squealing “Weeeee!” by the time I round the lap five.
By the way, did you know the phrase “balls to the wall” is an old aviation term? Something to do with pushing the balls on the end of the throttle lever fully forward to make the plane go as fast as possible. Raise your hand if you thought it meant something particular to male anatomy.
Anywhooo…so there I am having a frickin’ blast with my inner child expressing herself with abandonment from my middle-aged body. My partner Shal always tells me I look like a kid when I ride my dirtbike. I think it’s because it’s the smallest dirtbike of all our friends’. But most likely its because I often ride it like an 8 year-old…tentatively seeking out the not-too-crazy bumps and puddles on the trail. Whatever. I’m having fun and it dawns on me in this moment that I’m playing, and it feels really, really good. And powerful. And not trivial. So I got curious about this gleeful feeling. It doesn’t take a rocket-scientist to know that play = happiness = absence of stress = good health. But it does take a neuroscientist to explain why.
Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute of Play sums it up by saying that “Play is anything but trivial. It is a biological drive as integral to our health as sleep ornutrition. In fact, our ability to play throughout life is the single most important factor in determining our success and happiness. Likewise, an adult who has “lost” what was a playful youth and doesn’t play will demonstrate social, emotional and cognitive narrowing, be less able to handle stress, and often experience a smoldering depression.”
According to 2015 article by Michael Forman on The Importance of Play in Adulthood, “Play for adults is critical in our stressful go-go-go lives. Play has been shown to release endorphins, improve brain functionality, and stimulate creativity. And it can even help to keep us young and feeling energetic. Studies show that play improves memory and stimulates the growth of the cerebral cortex. Play has also been shown to trigger the secretion of BDNF, a substance essential for the growth of brain cells.”
According the National Institute on Play, some of the major findings from the neuroscience of play are:
- Play increases imagination
- Play creates a simultaneous sense of safety and adventure
- Play invokes creativity
- Play encourages us to adapt to the outside world while remaining authentic
And then of course there’s Plato, who said a bunch of smart stuff about 2,500 years ago, has been attributed to the saying “You can discover more about yourself in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” This concept is not unique to contemporary culture.
So what exactly is play? To play, according the Oxford English Dictionary is “to spend time doing something enjoyable or amusing. Enjoyable or amusing. Have you ever had the experience of going out to do something you think is going to be fun like a game or activity but it actually caused you stress? I certainly have. I wouldn’t call that real playing. Since I wasn’t pushing myself way outside my comfort zone on the motocross track, I was feeling exhilarated AND safe. So the next time I want to trigger my glee, imagination, and sense of safety while secreting some BDNF, I will think wisely about the activity I choose.
Now go play!
The post cover photo is from the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film, The Shining, based on the book by Stephen King. This scene is where Wendy (Shelley Duvall) discovers that the book Jack’s (Jack Nicholson) been working on contains the same sentence, written thousands of times over and over.