The importance of play for adults

March 25, 2009 | By | Reply More

In a recent talk at TED, psychiatrist Stuart Brown talked about the vital importance of play.  Brown opened his talk by showing an incredible series of photographs demonstrating that a huge hungry polar bear can be seduced into playing with dogs rather than eating them. Like a polar bear, play induces an “altered state” in humans.  Play is a great leveler: great differences in power can be overridden by play. In fact, the absence of play is dangerous, as demonstrated by the case histories of mass murderers.

Brown describes various kinds of play, including body play (e.g., jumping), object play (manipulating objects), social play, rough-and-tumble play, ritual play and imaginative play (storytelling). These activities simply make us feel better. They are purposeless. In fact, if the purpose is more important than the act of doing these things, they are not “play.” As I listened to this list, I was wondering whether sexual play is of the same importance as the other types of play.

The study of play is still in its infancy. Historically, this has not been a well-funded area of scientific investigation. Nonetheless, the evidence we already have suggests that play is important for developing cognitively, emotionally and developmentally. We already know that “nothing lights up the brain like play.” In fact, the ability to trust is learned through vocal, facial and gestural play signals. As Brown indicates, humans are perhaps the most neotonous species, suggesting a special need for humans to engage in play, whether they are infants or adults.

Various animal studies have shown that preventing an animal from playing causes dysfunction. Thus, it seems that play is important for survival. In fact, life without play seems to lead inexorably to depression.  When we look back in our history to determine what sorts of activities energized us when we were youngsters, we might deal with see that we have strayed from those things that gave us the pleasure of play. When we explore our personal history, we might find that we are mismatched in terms of career or other activities.

Image by mildegard at

Image by mildegard at

Brown encourages the audience that they should not set aside time to play. Rather, they (including adults) should infuse every moment of their lives with play. He argues that play is just important for humans as is asleep and dreaming.


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Category: Psychology Cognition, Videos

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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