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This Is Your Brain On Play

Rats do it. So do dogs, humpback whales and, especially, humans. Now scientists are striving to learn just how play impacts your body and mind. Plus: how to bring more fun into your life!


by Dana White

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As a kid, baseball legend Tom Seaver was an ace at pretend play. Growing up in Fresno, the boy who would one day be known as “Tom Terrific” invented a pair of invisible pals, gave ‘em names (George and Charlie), and played phantom baseball games for hours on end. “I would run around, yelling, arguing and running bases, but no one was there except my imaginary friends,” Seaver, 68, told a startled interviewer last month after throwing out the opening pitch of the All Star Game. Fox’s Erin Andrews might have been taken aback, but Dr. Stuart Brown, who studies the science of play, was not. He believes the emerging research on how fooling around impacts human physiology and psychology suggests that those make-believe buddies might just have played a starring role in Seaver’s Hall of Fame career. “This guy’s a player…. and he was never forced by his parents or anyone else to shut it down,” says Brown, author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. As Brown sees it, Seaver’s ultra-vivid imagination allowed him to “live in a state of play that helped him to evolve into innovation and new possibilities.”

Welcome to the often surprising, sometimes contradictory and ever-developing science of fun. It’s a field that combines observation and psychological tests with hard neuroscience, all in an effort to tease out where the “play drive” lives—how it travels in the brain, and how it shapes our behavior, our moods, even our coping skills. As behavioral neuroscientists have discovered neural connections and chemicals that define play, they also hope to find clues to the treatment of ADHD, autism, depression and drug addiction. While some of their theories are controversial, this cutting-edge work by pioneers like Dr. Jaak Panksepp are giving scientific cred to the nebulous concept of goofing around. Here, Panksepp and two other top scientists in the field explain how playfulness shapes our brains —and our lives.


Just in case you thought play was some sort of optional activity, like knitting or watching The Bachelorette, think again: We are hard-wired to have fun. Panksepp, PhD and author of Archeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions, considers the desire to play to be one of seven built-in “primal emotions,” along with rage, lust, fear, seeking, care, and panic/grief. He argues that the play impulse resides in “deep, ancient brain structures,” like the thalamus and amygdala, throwbacks to our prehistoric reptilian origins. To test this theory, he turned to the most playful mammal you’re likely to run into at a late-night subway station: the rat. In a much-discussed experiment (PETA members might want to skip this part), he removed the prefrontal cortex in young rodents–in effect, lobotomizing them. Yet when they awoke, the rats continued their usual pouncing, wrestling, chasing, and pink-pawed fisticuffs. Even with much of their cognitive abilities wiped out, the rats still played normally. According to Panksepp, “The most primitive parts of the brain generate various primary process emotions, including physical play. Without these primitive brain systems, people wouldn’t survive.”

See also: Getting Serious About Play


While Panksepp focuses on play’s origins in the deep recesses of the brain, Sergio Pellis, PhD, studies how the play drive shapes behavior and mood in the newer part of the mind (evolutionarily speaking): the frontal cortex, which rules emotions and the ability to distinguish right from wrong. “One of the things about play is, it’s hard to do it and not be in a better mood,” says Pellis, professor in the department of neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. “Playing fosters the kinds of neurochemical changes in your brain and body that tend to counteract the effect of neurochemicals produced when you’re stressed or unhappy.” In one landmark experiment, Pellis and his colleagues took six young, rambunctious rats and caged each of them with three stick-in-the-mud adult rodents. They took another six and caged each with three equally young, playful rats. Several weeks later, after examining the brains of both groups, they found that in the play-deprived rats the prefrontal cortex–the area at the front of the brain (right behind your forehead) that controls social behavior–were less developed than in those with full access to frolicsome peers. Pellis theorizes that in the latter group, all of that fun, communal horsing around helped shape the neural pathways in their brains, making them more socially and emotionally adept than play-deprived rats. It's a process that occurs in human children as well. Mammals with less-developed pre-frontal cortexes are more likely to overreact, to fight and to be depressed. “What seems clear,” says Pellis, “is that play at all ages, including adulthood, can keep animals on an even keel.”

PLAY IS LIKE SEX (Or A Really Good Meal)

Humans love to feel good; that’s why we instinctually gravitate toward food and sex. Dutch researcher Louk Vanderschuren, PhD, professor of Behavioral Neuroscience at Utrecht University, argues that social play can be just as powerful as those other two urges, triggering feel-good brain chemicals that activate the brain’s reward mechanism. “These activities turn on comparable brain systems,” says Vanderschuren. “Dopamine makes us want to play, while endorphins make us enjoy it.” As a result, we feel satisfied, happy, and eager for more — particularly when there is a willing partner involved. (Sound familiar?) In one study, Vanderschuren found that a young rat will push a lever up to 95 times to open a trap door in order to play with another rat on the other side. But just like sex drive, the “play drive” can fluctuate dramatically from person to person. No wonder that, given a choice between food and play, even hungry monkeys will choose play about half the time, says Vanderschuren. “Some of our studies have shown that social play can have a rewarding value that is as strong as tasty food.” Seconds? Yes, please. 

5 Ways to Fit More Play Into Your Life:

1. Lighten up already. “An actual sense of humor is important to being a playful person,” says Stuart Brown. Granted, you can’t just buy a sense of humor if you happen to not have one, but you can tweak your attitude and not let teasing tee you off: “Ironic discourse and bantering between people is a way of play in itself,” says Brown. “Don’t take everything so seriously.” If all else fails, he adds, dance: Most of us respond to rhythm, to music, to movement of the body.”

2. Try a cool new hobby. “One of the keys for continued development is taking on new challenges,” says Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, PhD, an expert in child education and co-author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. “Start a new hobby, like yoga or pottery. Try to embrace new stuff in a playful way. It doesn’t matter how you do it, it matters that you enjoy it.”

3. Have fun as regularly as you brush your teeth. “Play is an important personal hygiene issue, as much as a good night’s sleep and washing your hands,” says Brown. “It’s both an attitude, and a mission to be true to one’s self. These are people I like to be around. They’re upbeat, they’re powered by their playmates.”

4. Get dreamy. “For kids, play has a big fantasy element,” says Golinkoff. “In adults we call it ‘daydreaming.’ It gets a bad rap, but people get important ideas during daydreaming.” Besides, she says, if you’re going to make big life changes, you’re going to be imagining that change, “trying to envision yourself in alternative worlds.” We’ll envision Paris, thank you very much.

5. Hang out with six year olds. “Young kids are really important,” says Robert Fulghum, author of the 1989 bestseller All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. “They give you license to play. Take your grandkids to the zoo, where you’d never go by yourself. Fly a kite on the beach. Build a sandcastle.” If you don’t have grandchildren, borrow someone else’s. (Just tell them first.) Or hey, take yourself!

Preview: Woman on orange bouncy ball: Tim Hall/Getty Images Article photos: Dog racing after red soccer ball: Tim Platt/Getty Images Brain illustration: Avika/Getty Images