The Power of Play: Rewiring Our Brain for Better Functioning

12/30/20239 min read

four boy playing ball on green grass
four boy playing ball on green grass

Play is not just a frivolous activity; it has the power to transform our feelings, thoughts, and actions. Dr. Andrew Huberman, a renowned neuroscientist, emphasizes the profound impact that play can have on our brain and overall well-being. In this blog post, we will delve into the fascinating world of play and explore how it can rewire our brain to function better in all contexts.

The Neurobiology of Play

Dr. Huberman explains that when we engage in play, our brain releases chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins, which are associated with pleasure and reward. These chemicals create a positive feedback loop, reinforcing the desire to continue playing. Moreover, play activates various regions of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions such as decision-making, problem-solving, and emotional regulation.

Through play, we can explore our environment and different contingencies. It allows us to experiment, take risks, and learn from our experiences. By engaging in imaginative and creative play, we can tap into our inner child and unlock our potential for innovation and adaptability.

The Therapeutic Power of Play

One of the most remarkable aspects of play is its ability to help us alleviate distress, especially after experiencing trauma. When we engage in play, we are able to play with these contingencies, creating a safe space where we can process and make sense of our emotions and experiences. Play allows us to express ourselves in ways that words alone cannot capture.

Children, in particular, naturally gravitate towards play as a means of processing their emotions and understanding the world around them. Play therapy has emerged as a valuable therapeutic approach for children who have experienced trauma or are struggling with emotional difficulties. By engaging in play, children can externalize their inner struggles and work through them in a non-threatening and supportive environment.

However, play is not just for children. Adults can also benefit from incorporating play into their lives. Whether it's through hobbies, sports, or creative outlets, play provides a much-needed respite from the demands of everyday life. It allows us to recharge, reduce stress, and foster a sense of joy and fulfillment.

How Does Play Help Other Mammals?

Play is a fundamental aspect of social behavior in many mammals, including dogs and various other species. Here are several ways in which play benefits dogs and other mammals:

  1. Socialization: Play is a crucial component of social development. In the wild or domestic environments, play allows animals to interact with their peers, helping them develop social skills and establish hierarchies within the group. For dogs, play is a way to learn how to interact with other dogs and, in some cases, with humans.

  2. Physical Exercise: Play is a natural and enjoyable way for mammals to get physical exercise. It helps maintain a healthy weight, promotes cardiovascular health, and contributes to overall fitness. In the wild, play can also be a form of practice for hunting or evading predators.

  3. Stress Relief: Play provides a means for animals to release excess energy and reduce stress. Engaging in play can be a way for animals to cope with anxiety, boredom, or frustration. Playful activities stimulate the release of endorphins, contributing to a sense of well-being.

  4. Cognitive Stimulation: Play involves problem-solving, strategic thinking, and coordination, providing cognitive stimulation for animals. This mental exercise is important for maintaining cognitive function and preventing boredom-related behavioral issues.

  5. Bonding and Communication: Play strengthens social bonds among animals. For dogs, play can enhance the bond between a pet and its owner or between canine companions. It also facilitates communication, allowing animals to convey intentions, establish boundaries, and reinforce social bonds.

  6. Exploration and Learning: Playful activities often mimic real-life scenarios, allowing animals to practice and refine various skills. This includes hunting, stalking, and other behaviors crucial for survival. Playful exploration helps young animals learn about their environment and understand their physical capabilities.

  7. Behavioral Development: Play is essential for the development of appropriate behaviors in animals. Through play, young mammals learn important life skills, such as bite inhibition and proper social conduct. Play also helps animals learn about their own bodies and develop coordination.

Adaptability: Playful interactions expose animals to a variety of situations, objects, and stimuli. This exposure enhances their adaptability to different environments and circumstances. It can be particularly important for animals that may need to navigate changing conditions in the wild or in diverse domestic settings.

What Does Play Look Like in Other Animals?

Play behavior in mammals can take various forms, and it often serves multiple purposes, including social bonding, skill development, and stress relief. Here are some examples of play behavior in different mammals:

  1. Canines (Dogs and Wolves):

    • Playful Wrestling: Dogs engage in play-fighting, mock biting, and wrestling with each other. This helps them develop bite inhibition and social skills.

    • Fetch: Many dogs enjoy playing fetch, retrieving objects like balls or toys thrown by their owners.

    • Chasing and Being Chased: Dogs often engage in playful chasing, taking turns being the pursuer and the pursued.

  2. Cats:

    • Stalking and Pouncing: Domestic cats exhibit play behavior that mimics hunting. They may stalk, pounce, and bat at objects, simulating the movements involved in capturing prey.

    • Interactive Toys: Cats may play with toys, particularly those that mimic the movements of small animals.

  3. Dolphins:

    • Chasing Waves: Dolphins are known for riding waves created by boats or each other, displaying acrobatic behavior in the water.

    • Object Play: Dolphins may play with seaweed, playfully toss objects, or engage in games with other marine life.

  4. Elephants:

    • Dust Baths: Elephants often engage in dust bathing, where they throw dust or mud onto their bodies. This serves both as a cooling mechanism and a playful activity.

    • Social Play: Elephants engage in social play, including play-fighting and interacting with other members of the herd.

  5. Chimpanzees:

    • Object Manipulation: Chimpanzees play with sticks, rocks, and other objects, using them in creative ways.

    • Chasing and Wrestling: Playful chasing and wrestling are common among young chimpanzees, promoting social bonding and learning.

  6. Cows:

    • Running and Bucking: Cows, particularly calves, may engage in running, jumping, and bucking as a form of play.

    • Social Interactions: Playful interactions within a herd, such as head-butting or chasing, contribute to social cohesion.

  7. Penguins:

    • Sliding on Ice: Penguins engage in sliding on their bellies over ice and snow, a behavior that resembles playing and also serves as a means of transportation.

    • Social Games: Penguins in colonies may engage in social games, reinforcing social bonds within the group.

  8. Squirrels:

    • Tree Climbing: Squirrels exhibit playful behavior by climbing trees, leaping from branch to branch, and exploring their surroundings.

    • Object Manipulation: Squirrels may play with objects, such as acorns or small branches, in a manner that resembles exploration and play.

These examples highlight the diversity of play behaviors across different mammal species. Playful activities vary based on the species' natural behaviors, environmental factors, and social structures. Play is not only a source of enjoyment for mammals but also a crucial component of their development and well-being.

Play and Brain Plasticity

Dr. Huberman on the Huberman Lab Podcast #58 highlights the concept of brain plasticity, which refers to the brain's ability to change and adapt throughout our lives. Play is a powerful tool that can harness this plasticity, rewiring our brain to function better in all contexts.

When we engage in play, we activate neural pathways that may have been underutilized or dormant. This increased neural activity strengthens connections between brain cells, enhancing our cognitive abilities and promoting neuroplasticity. By regularly engaging in play, we can improve our memory, attention, and overall cognitive functioning.

Furthermore, play encourages the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the growth and survival of neurons. BDNF plays a crucial role in neuroplasticity, promoting the formation of new connections and the remodeling of existing ones. This neurochemical process enhances our brain's ability to adapt and learn.

Engaging in play as an adult has been associated with several positive effects on well-being and happiness. Here are some links between adult play and happiness:

  1. Stress Reduction: Play, whether it's through recreational activities, games, or hobbies, can be a powerful stress reliever. Engaging in playful activities helps to release tension, reduce cortisol levels, and promote relaxation, contributing to an overall sense of well-being.

  2. Enhanced Mood: Playful activities trigger the release of endorphins, the body's natural feel-good chemicals. These endorphins act as mood enhancers, leading to increased feelings of happiness and pleasure.

  3. Improved Creativity: Play often involves creativity and imagination. Engaging in creative and playful pursuits stimulates the brain, fostering a sense of accomplishment and joy. This boost in creativity can positively influence overall life satisfaction.

  4. Social Connection: Many forms of play involve social interaction, whether it's playing sports, participating in group games, or joining social clubs. Social engagement is a key factor in happiness, and the connections formed through play contribute to a sense of belonging and social support.

  5. Cognitive Benefits: Play can stimulate the brain and contribute to cognitive well-being. Engaging in intellectually stimulating games, puzzles, or playful learning activities can enhance cognitive function and contribute to a sense of satisfaction.

  6. Mindfulness and Presence: Play encourages individuals to be present in the moment, fostering mindfulness. When people are fully engaged in a playful activity, they often experience a temporary escape from stressors, leading to increased happiness and a sense of enjoyment.

  7. Physical Well-Being: Physical play, such as engaging in sports or outdoor activities, contributes to physical health. Regular physical activity is linked to improved mood, increased energy levels, and better overall well-being.

  8. Enhanced Relationships: Participating in playful activities with others can strengthen social bonds and relationships. Whether it's playing games, engaging in shared hobbies, or simply having fun together, these experiences contribute to positive social connections, which are crucial for happiness.

  9. Positive Outlook: Playfulness is associated with a positive and lighthearted outlook on life. People who incorporate play into their daily lives often exhibit a more optimistic attitude, resilience in the face of challenges, and a greater ability to find joy in simple pleasures.

  10. Life Satisfaction: Overall, the enjoyment and fulfillment derived from playful activities contribute to a higher level of life satisfaction. Having a balance of work and play in one's life is linked to greater happiness and a more positive overall outlook.

It's important to note that the concept of play for adults can vary widely, from recreational sports and hobbies to creative pursuits and social activities. Finding activities that resonate with individual preferences and interests is key to reaping the happiness benefits associated with adult play. One important aspect to remember is that play should be fun. If you're playing too competitively, you're likely not getting the same benefits.

Bringing Play into Our Everyday Lives

Now that we understand the transformative power of play, how can we incorporate it into our lives?

  1. 1. Prioritize Play: Make play a priority in your daily routine. Set aside dedicated time for activities that bring you joy and allow you to engage in playful exploration.

  2. 2. Connect with Others: Play is often a social activity. Engage in team sports, join a board game night with friends, or participate in community events that encourage playfulness and interaction.

  3. 3. Turn Everyday Tasks into Play: Infuse playfulness into mundane tasks by approaching them with curiosity and a sense of fun. Find creative ways to turn your work into a game (when appropriate). Find solutions and challenge yourself to think outside the box.

  4. 4. Try New Things: Step out of your comfort zone and try new activities. Explore different hobbies, sports, or games that pique your interest. Embracing novelty and variety stimulates the brain and encourages playful exploration.

  5. 5. Board Games and Puzzles: Board games and puzzles are not just for kids. They provide mental stimulation, social interaction, and a sense of accomplishment. Invite friends or family to join in.

  6. 6. Try New Activities: Be open to trying new things. Attend a painting class, join a sports league, or explore a hobby you've never considered. Novelty can add an element of fun to your life.

Remember, play is not just a luxury; it is a fundamental aspect of our well-being. By embracing playfulness and incorporating it into our lives, we can tap into its transformative power and unlock our brain's full potential.

As Dr. Andrew Huberman emphasizes, play has the ability to change our feelings, thoughts, and actions. It can rewire our brain to function better in all contexts (not just in the play setting). So, let's embrace the power of play and let our inner child guide us towards a more joyful and fulfilling life.

How is Play Used in Therapy?

  1. Emotional Expression: Play provides a natural and comfortable avenue for individuals, especially children, to express and explore their emotions. Through play, they can act out and make sense of complex feelings and experiences.

  2. Communication Skills: Play encourages the development of communication skills. It allows individuals to practice verbal and non-verbal communication, helping them express thoughts and feelings more effectively.

  3. Problem-Solving Skills: Many types of play involve decision-making and problem-solving. This helps individuals develop critical thinking skills, learn to make choices, and understand consequences in a safe and controlled environment.

  4. Social Skills: Play often involves interaction with others, promoting the development of social skills such as cooperation, sharing, and empathy. Group play can enhance interpersonal relationships and the ability to navigate social situations.

  5. Cognitive Development: Play stimulates cognitive development by promoting creativity, imagination, and abstract thinking. It encourages individuals to explore different scenarios and perspectives, fostering intellectual growth.

  6. Stress Reduction: Engaging in play activities can be a natural stress reliever. Play helps release tension, reduce anxiety, and create a sense of joy and relaxation.

  7. Trauma Processing: Play therapy is particularly effective in helping individuals, especially children, process and cope with traumatic experiences. Through symbolic play, they can externalize and work through difficult emotions and memories.

  8. Neuroplasticity: Play has been linked to improved neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to adapt and reorganize itself. This is particularly important for cognitive and emotional development, as well as for recovery from trauma.

  9. Self-Esteem Building: Success and mastery in play activities contribute to a positive self-image. Achieving goals in play helps build confidence and a sense of accomplishment.

  10. Relationship Building: Play provides a unique opportunity for therapists to build a rapport with their clients. It fosters a trusting relationship, as individuals may feel more comfortable and open during play activities.

Incorporating play into therapy, whether through structured play therapy techniques or more informal activities, can be a powerful tool for promoting holistic well-being and addressing various psychological challenges.