Play: How it shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul


Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan


Penguin Publishing Group






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Stuart Brown is a physician, psychiatrist and clinical researcher and he has made a career of studying the effects of play on people and animals. His conclusion is that play is as important as oxygen, sleep and nutrition - and that it's a powerful force in nature that helps determine the likelihood of the very survival of the human race. Throughout the book he discusses the "play histories" and play habits of subjects from all walks of life - as diverse as polar bears, corporate CEOs and serial murderers. Brown and his fellow writer Christopher Vaughan present a compelling case for us all to integrate play into our lives at every age.

The book presents the evolutionary and developmental view of play in an easy to read format, weaving his facts with personal narrative, photo sequences, assessment instruments and tools for the reader to use.

As true play is effectively purposeless, Brown shares the difficulty of explaining play in structured manner. His descriptors of true play include it being voluntary, diminished consciousness of self, freedom from time, improvisational potential and the desire to continue.

One interesting conclusion he found was in the animal kingdom, those who play the most, survive the most. Studies with Alaskan bears for more than fifteen years showed that play provides practice - a rehearsal for the challenges of life, the opportunity to experiment and increase social skills. When animals play fight they are practicing to fight or hunt for real later on.

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 discusses an adaptive pattern called neoteny, which describes the stretching of juvenile periods and sometimes the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood. Put simply, humans spend longer as children, therefore play longer, therefore are smarter. He states that of all animals, humans are the biggest players of all. In well adjusted people, play very likely continues to prompt neurogenesis throughout their lives. He cites the example of studies of early dementia where physical play forestalls mental decline by stimulating neurogenesis.

Just as sleep deprivation can lead to diminished health, so play deficiency can lead to mental illness. Brown shares numerous studies showing that play can counteract depression and continuing play can prevent its recurrence. He claims play enhances memory, creativity, learning and promotes a positive life attitude

The book is inspiring, interesting and an easy read, written in an easy flow. It is also research based as the author has made a career out of studying play and demonstrates statistical validity for many of his claims. For many people, often without knowing, they have let play disappear from their lives, almost devaluing its importance as they mature. It is a good reminder that we need to stop and smell the roses.

Stuart Brown can also be seen in action in a TED talk "Play is more than fun".