I watch my middle-aged dogs go through the same ritual every day: They stare each other down, locking eyes, and freezing in mid-stride for several seconds. Then, as though an unseen signal has been transmitted, they leap away, tumbling over each other, and playtime begins.
If you’ve ever had a pet, you already know that domesticated animals like to play. In fact, there is pretty clear evidence that all animals play, not just the kittens and puppies on YouTube. Baby elephants slide down muddy hills; ravens snowboard on their bellies; herring gulls play catch in mid-air; even ants and inch worms have been caught at what appears to be playful activity. And if you need a pick-me-up, try watching this elk on a trampoline.
Mystery of play
This behavior, so common across so many species, is something of a mystery to animal behaviorists. You see, from a biological point of view, animals select for behaviors that provide some kind of survival advantage.
So, if everyone is playing, there must something really special about it. We just haven’t been able to prove what it is. And we are far from understanding the mechanism for play in the brain. What trigger makes my dogs agree that it’s playtime?
For years, the assumption was that play was a chance to practice activities that would be helpful in adult life, such as fighting skills or tracking prey. There are two problems with this theory: 1) it has yet to be proven, and 2) it doesn’t explain why adults still engage in play. One scientist tested this theory by tracking early play in meerkats and found no correlation between play and future survival.
This result has been repeated over and over again, as scientists have tried to prove the “value” of play. The very definition of “play” implies that it is an activity with no apparent value or purpose.
Window of neuroscience
Recently, neuroscience has opened a window on this mysterious behavior. Dr. Stuart Brown has been studying the nature of play using the tools of neuroscience. He traces play all the way back to the “big bang,” when a massive explosion introduced random movement of atomic particles into the universe.
His work makes a compelling, evidence-based case that play begins at birth and enriches survival throughout our lives. He was able to place brain imaging devices on a mother and infant and capture the activity of the right cortex at the moment of mother-baby connection we call “baby talk.” During this process, the cerebellum sends signals to the frontal cortex, stimulating language and cognitive functions.
Implications of play in human capital management
Engaging in play makes physical, positive changes in your brain. You become better at solving problems, improve empathy, recognize patterns, and handle stress. Cancer patients playing a game that lets them “shoot” cancer cells develop a more positive attitude towards their own illness and may improve survival rates.
Play is a natural and important brain activity that enhances performance. Maybe that’s why places like Google and Zappos are considered great places to work. Here are a few suggestions for incorporating play into work: Why Play Matters for Adults.
The next time your pet or child is in a playful mood, join in! You’ll be making new neural connections in the process.