Big Corn Island off the coast of Nicaragua has a playful spirit. It was infectious. In this article, I’ll talk about the neural underpinnings of playfulness and how the diminished opportunities for play might be contributing to the escalating incidence of ADHD in the youth.
If Little Corn left me feeling ambivalent, Big Corn was unwavering delight. We found ourselves the cutest cabin on a property shared by the Island Bakery, just a coconut roll from the beach. Painted peach and made of wood, it looked like a toy set.
We had planned to stay for three nights but we lingered for almost three weeks. Paradise, with its sultry connotations, is not the word that comes to mind. The atmosphere on Big Corn was playful. Perhaps it was the Caribbean English, an accent that seems to bounce around and hurtle along, making you want to join in and jive to the conversation. And certainly, the chaotic little taxi cars roaring around the island made us laugh. Reggaton beats blaring, they would honk at you as they went by, and if you needed a ride, the second you were in it was acceleration, full speed ahead, whizzing you to your destination. The neighborhoods have names like “Sally Peachy” and the bus stops are adorned with giant sea creatures.
Mischa and I would spend every sunset bobbing and sloshing around in the still waters at the little beach in front of our cabin. In the weightlessness of the salty sea, I pretended I was strong enough to carry him. We took slow-mo videos of ourselves hurtling head-first into the water. We kept marveling, over and over again, at the blissful scene. As the sun dipped, the blue patchwork of the ocean turned to a shimmering green. There was seldom any substantial breeze, the palm fronds poised, quietness except for the occasional thud from a falling coconut. We liked to watch the clouds, great big bubbling, smoky-white masses, like the steam from a cauldron. Sometimes, especially at night, it would storm and thunder, a most unusual thunder which seemed to drawl and echo, a bowling ball galloping down the passage way, drowning out the music that we were playing from the porch. Everything felt just-right, care-free. I guess you could say it was peaceful.
This will sound strange, but I discovered reading on Big Corn island. Or rather, I got a grasp on my attention, it deepened into a focused and extended engagement which I’ve always struggled to maintain for longer than 20 minutes at a time with a single book. Reading is something I do a lot of, especially articles and studies related to my research, but I tend to hop quickly from one study to another and then back again. Mischa teases me about the length of time it takes me to finish a novel. My mind is restless, usually needing a hypothesis to sustain my attention for long periods. On Big Corn, I settled into a cozy routine of spending the hot hours of the day under the palms on the beach, absorbed in a book – Oliver Sacks’ works in particular, his detailed accounts of bizarre and fascinating neurological patients. Mischa retreated to the air-conditioned sanctuary of the cabin where he worked on producing his music. He too seemed to be benefiting from the good vibrations of the island.
Inspired by the playful tone of Big Corn island life, I want to use this opportunity to write about the neural basis of playfulness. Our experience of what these good vibrations did for our attention is fitting, since some theories claim that many of the problems with attention that youngsters nowadays are exhibiting, are an almost direct result of the diminishing opportunities for carefree play.
The Neurobiology of Play
Although many of the types of play in children may be learned (for instance, girls are taught or socialized, to play with dolls, while boys are given army heroes), the brains of all mammals come hardwired from birth with circuits for generating the “ludic urge” (from ludare, to play) – the instinct to play.
Some of the best evidence for the instinctual basis of play comes from early animal studies in hamsters which showed that, even if you “de-corticate” (cut out the cortex, the seat of learning) the brain to leave only the most ancient structures which control automatic, reflexive behavior and physiological function, the animal will continue to play. The tell-tale signs of play will remain – the tag-and-run gestures, the quick gentle nips, the high-pitched chirps. In humans, we call these high-pitched chirps laughter. Even in rare neurological conditions where a child is born completely without the cortex, joyous laughter is spared.
Playfulness is an irresistible and wholly rewarding urge. It is thought to be the deep foundations of primal human joy. It’s an emotional feeling that none of us have to learn and one that most children tend to seek out vigorously. Pretend play is just one manifestation of the urge. In older children, playful jostling, kidding about and even mild teasing is play at work. Often, in adulthood, the play instinct tends to get whittled down to comedy and humor, and to some extent creativity and sport. If alcohol is added to the equation, you might witness an almost complete regression to childhood antics! Alcohol seems to have a way of rekindling the play circuitries of youth. Indeed, getting a bit sloshed is fun.
Brain Structures of Play
Play arises from deep regions in the brain, a circuit of structures that include the thalamic nuclei, the frontal cortex and an area called the striatum. To a lesser extent, the amygdala, ventral hypothalamus and the periaqueductal gray (PAG) are involved. These brain titles may be meaningless to the average reader, but most people will have come across the chemical, dopamine (most notably because of the very name of this blog!). Dopamine gives rise to energizing, excitable, positive mental states and as it happens, it is a chief instigator of playfulness. But not all by itself. Like play, it needs partners. Opioids and cannabinoids, both members of the feel-good family of brain chemicals, help to sustain play.
We also know that problems with somatosensory processing, that is, the processing of sensations from the skin, can interfere with the ability to play. Somatosensation is important for the development of the motor system but studies also show that it is important in infants for the development of healthy, secure attachments to their caregivers. Young children who have problems with tactile (skin) processing also tend to be less able to respond to the playful gestures of others, like tickling, for example.
Why is Play an Instinct?
Have we forgotten that play is where it all begins? In our modern, competitive times, driven by the imperative to be productive and focused in the pursuit of success!, play seems to be regarded by our educational institutions as a distraction. Even for young children, whose schedules seem to leave hardly any time at all for idle time and care-free play, this seems to be the case. But of course, if children were left to their own devices, play would naturally ensue. The same goes for animals. If deprived and housed in isolation, young Guinea pigs will make up for lost time when reunited with their playmates. Our genetic make-up is so hardwired because playful interaction with others is critical for healthy social development.
Essentially, the higher cortical regions of the brain (that convoluted, bumpy grey covering that we see on the surface of the entire brain) arrive at birth as a tableaux rasa – a blank slate, so to speak. Instincts are there to drive the acquisition of experience and learning so as to populate this empty space and help the brain develop to its full sophistication. Play is essential to optimum psychological growth, especially in matters related to interpersonal emotional functioning.
It is here in the joyful, blithe and uncomplicated moments of play that young humans learn about all the intricacies of their own limits and capacities, as well as their group’s social rules. It is not a coincidence that play often takes the form of dramatic re-enactments of grown-ups and their seeming dilemmas.
But most importantly, the benefits of play are not limited to social behavior. Scientific studies have shown that engaging in regular play stimulates a number of brain chemicals, such as brain-derived neurotropic factor, which facilitates neural growth and has a number of other long-term benefits to brain development. For example, children who play more tend to suffer less from depression later on as adults.
In small mammals, like rats, the clearest sign of play is epitomized in “rough-and-tumble” play. When you see two young animals engaged in this activity, bouncing about, pinning each other, chirping here and there, you know they are in a state of delight. Of course, it is hard to know the boundaries, and sometimes play becomes overly boisterous, often leading to tears. In these “safe” contexts, children learn to negotiate interpersonal relationships, preparing them for the real world and encouraging them to seek out further opportunities for social interaction.
Animals may not have the capacity to reflect on this delight, to allow these cherished (and sometimes trying) moments to feed back into a concept of themselves and their identity, but there is every reason to believe, based on our shared chemistry and neuroanatomy, that other mammals feel basic playful joy in much the same rudimentary way we do. It’s great fun, and animals big and small will laugh. They too need to learn the ways of their social group and the reward of play ensures that this happens.
The play instinct gives youthfulness its characteristic mischievous joy. But – young creatures will only play if they are well fed and sense no imminent danger, like, for rat pups, the scent of a cat. For play to blossom, little animals, humans included, need to feel secure. Nothing is as big a dampener to play than anxiety. Children may struggle to articulate this, but as adults, it is hard not to notice the waning urge to let loose and have some fun when there is anxiety on the back-burner.
And so, for many of us grownups, our urge to play in the wake of the week’s hangover of stress leads us to the bar. Anxiety diminishes and we’re fast-tracked to fun and laughs, the ultimate tonic of well-being. Studies have shown that laughter not only reduces levels of cortisol – a chemical that is a marker of stress – but that it also reduces growth hormone, which has been linked to cancer.
Play and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
A number of psychologists are starting to believe that one of the main reasons for the snowballing incidence of ADHD may be the diminishing opportunities for small children to engage in spontaneous, self-directed social play. That is, the kind of imaginative play that happens in open spaces, full of energy, movement and improvisation. Computer games, though captivating for young minds, unfortunately don’t quite make the cut when it comes to real play.
Instead of creating more time for play, many children who exhibit symptoms of ADHD – problems with focusing their attention in the classroom, for instance – are treated with strong psychostimulants to help them concentrate. Studies have shown that these drugs, like Ritalin, not only improve attention, but they also, sadly, dampen the general tendency of children to be playful. In short, this is not so different from dampening other emotional systems in the brain that provide a powerful source of joy and well-being.
The alarming paradox is that play provides the critical context in which growing brains learn to inhibit themselves. That is, play helps to teach young children how to entrain their impulses and control their behavior and emotions. On Ritalin, a child may be temporally, chemically restrained, but they will be denied the natural opportunities for learning how to exercise this skill without the help of drugs.
Before I end, I would like to say that, while play may be the antidote for many modern-day cases of ADHD, it is not to say that there is no place for drugs like Ritalin. During my time as an intern at the Red Cross Hospital in Cape Town, I once witnessed a child so hyperactive and inattentive that she was literally bouncing off the walls. It was impossible to channel her attention for long enough to complete any sort of neuropsychological test, and so, in the end, she had to return the week later, this time medicated on Ritalin. A child like that, sadly, will not be able to learn even the most basic skills at school and alas, she did not perform very well on the tests. In such case, sparing the ludic urge for the weekends, even if it means the weekdays are dreary, is probably better for her intellectual and emotional development in the long run. That not to say, however, that play therapy should not form part of a larger treatment plan.
Some references for those who would like to read up more on the topic:
Neurobiological Substrates of Play Behavior: Glimpses into Structure and Function of Mammalian Playfulness – S. Siviy
In Search of Neurobiological Substrate for Social Playfulness in Mammalian Brains – Siviy & Panksepp