Do you want to build a bigger, stronger, faster and more socially adept brain? Then you should play more according to research by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp.
Jaak Panksepp is our kind of neuroscientist. His career is marked by daring to go where many of his contemporaries fear to tread. In a lengthy interview with the American Journal of Play, Panksepp discusses the intellectual biases of behaviorists that made it difficult to find funding for his research into the biological underpinnings of such things as play.
Fortunately Panksepp and his colleagues persevered and have produced an insightful body of work. One study of interest shows that play activates a neurodevelopmental agent called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Simplistically, BDNF can be thought of as steroids for your brain. It has been recognized as a key modulator of neuronal development and brain plasticity.
Panksepp and his team discovered that rats who were permitted to engage in rough and tumble play prior to examination had significantly elevated levels of BDNF. Elevated BDNF levels were found in areas of the brain associated with executive as well as emotional processes. This suggests play helps organize executive functions as well as store memories of the social encounters to assist in social learning.
Of course the study makes clear that because they are trying to untangle a whole host of complex and interrelated processes it is not entirely clear whether the elevated BDNF was the result of play or just increased activity. (Who wants to bet on the answer?) Here is Panksepp on the effects of play:
At a whole-animal functional level, such effects are likely manifested in more useful social strategies and flexible behavioral responses to unexpected future events. However, experimental work at this level remains in its infancy. Our best hypothesis right now is that the primary-process emotional urge to play, when allowed abundant expression, helps construct and refine many of the higher regions of the social brain. Perhaps it is especially influential in refining our frontal cortical, executive networks that allow us to more effectively appreciate social nuances and develop better social strategies. In other words, play allows us to stop, look, listen, and feel the more subtle social pulse around us.
This is but one more small study which points towards the fundamental importance of play in human development.