Play is not just reserved for children. It is not just reserved for sport or fun. Play, according to science, it’s vital for brain development. Play is as much exercise for the brain as it is for the body. When we play, our brain releases chemicals that make us feel good. It actually “dopes you up a little“ according to Dr. Andrew Huberman, Professor of Neurobiology at Stanford School of Medicine (in a healthy way of course).
As a result, the prefrontal cortex in the brain (the seat of our rationality, planning, decision making) actually gets smarter! It develops the ability to explore, to take on different roles, to essentially expand thoughts and behaviors. During play, the prefrontal cortex begins to explore new ways to interact with our environments, other people in a social setting, and the roles that we assume for ourselves in life.
Anyone in everyone can benefit from engaging in a bit more play. And this does not necessarily have to be jumping around and goofing around like we did as kids or even sporting events. The key to play that benefits and improves brain function is engaging in an activity that has a lot of potential different outcomes. This challenge allows the brain to go into prediction mode and problem-solving mode. Also, exploring those outcomes in allowing yourself to think about how they will impact you is key.
Another key is to engage in activities that you may not be good at or that are challenging. This is a crucial ingredient for neuroplasticity. Challenge, along with failure, heightens focus and drives a sense of urgency within the brain and body to better achieve a desired outcome. And the type of play where there are not high stakes involved (like money is on the line or there are must win situations) is also key. This allows for exploration and failure comfortability, so to speak.
Examples of Play
So, what should we play? Well, whatever you enjoy, are willing to lose, and don’t get uber competitive and skyrocket your adrenaline. Music, chess, unique and novel/new forms of movement are great, like dance, yoga or rock climbing. Martial Arts like Jiu Jitsu are also excellent for neuroplasticity.
Research has also shown that play improves well-being. So try to make it a point to get a little bit of play in your life every day or every couple of days. Ideally, based upon the literature, Dr. Huberman recommends at least an hour per week. Take up a new hobby, like one mentioned above, or something similar. Invite a friend or a loved one to join you and keep each other accountable. That will help benefit your brain in multiple ways and help you feel better both physically and mentally.
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