Dr. Jam Caleda N.D. Integrative Naturopathic Medical Centre Naturopath YVR
5 min|Dr. Jam Caleda

The Art of Play and How It Affects Our Body

Mind Health

For those who aren’t familiar with the analog sounds of the Nintendo Entertainment System, Up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A, is known as the Konami Code. While playing the game Contra on the Nintendo, the mentioned series of buttons can be pressed on the controller before the game begins automatically adding 30 extra lives to the player. Life would be so easy if Konami was responsible for designing our brains.

As a kid I grew up playing games on electronic entertainment systems like the Nintendo. I also remember having free play with my brother and sister using Lego blocks, or make believe basketball scenarios where I was Michael Jordan dunking on a homemade hoop in my garage.

Play is a fundamental component of childhood, so much so that we see it as a preserved evolutionary phenotype in life.

90% of mammalian species as well as a significant number of non-mammalian, and even invertebrate organisms exhibit playfulness during development (1) showing that it has been through the rigors of natural selection and afforded some advantage. But as we grow older in this world there is a tendency for us to curb our enthusiasm for playfulness.

It becomes marginalized as an afterthought, and understandably so when the priority becomes family, work, and survival. And with this transition there are occasions where over-stress, anxiety, and depression can precipitate, and prolonged exposure to these emotional states can manifest into more physiologic pathology.

Coping Mechanism

There is a growing body of research that is looking at play as a healthy coping mechanism in many negative emotional situations. An early study looked at preschool children and found that kids who are distressed at the first day of school and allowed to free play became less anxious about the experience overall (2).

Similarly children with leukemia have reduced negative emotions toward their situation when they played in parallel or in groups with other kids, and the inverse was found with the absence of games or in solitaire play (3). We can see that play can be an effective tool in mitigating threatening stimulus in our lives, which can be helpful when we sometimes swim in apparent threat.

Neurobiology of Play

Play and gaming, in whatever context we interpret that as, has profound effects on the body. During play activities many things happen to our brain and hormonal chemistry; dopamine is released in substantial quantities, neurochemicals in the hippocampus stimulate curiosity and excitement, and an appropriate regulation of stress hormones emerge. These neurochemical occurrences stimulate pleasure, curiosity, and intense attention.

Some researchers believe that with continuous tapping of this type of neurobiology, it can increase our capacity to problem solve, mitigate depression, and stimulate more positive confident behaviors (4). Jane McGonigal spoke at a 2010 ted talk on a fascinating subject arguing how gaming can make a better world (https://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world#t-283666). Playing may be a great opportunity to be the best version of ourselves without the fear of judgment or failure.

How Do We Play

I know that playing may seem like an ambitious or childlike endeavor given the busy schedules we might have. It may not seem appropriate to play video games online, or we may not have the time to coordinate a basketball contest, but research shows that cultivating a playful mindset in everyday activities can stimulate the same centers of the brain that games activate. Here are a few ideas that you can try to add playfulness in your life.

1. Be willing to try and laugh when you fail

Success isn’t just about succeeding, but also being able to create a positive experience when we fall, so we can do it again.

2. Learn a new skill

Hula hooping, dancing, drawing or other forms of art can be playful as well as enrich your time in cultivating yourself.

3. Movement

This is essential, we can easily get stuck in the same movements with our bodies and our brains become hardwired for that. Moving our bodies in novel ways, like dancing, not only increases different pathways for our brains to think but also reduces our risk for chronic musculoskeletal pain

4. Use apps

Technology has been a great tool in making life more accessible for us. There are some great apps out there that allow us to play games on the go. Cognitive brain games also reduce risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

For me, remembering that it’s okay to play is always the first step. Then taking the time to remember that I am playing when I am doing something that I enjoy is just as important. As humans we tend to learn a lot about ourselves when we get into this mindset, and it becomes a form of self research, so take the time to learn your code and add 30 extra lives to your game.

  1. Siviy, Stephen M. "Play and adversity: How the playful mammalian brain withstands threats and anxieties." American Journal of Play3 (2010).
  2. Barnett, Lynn A. Research note: Young children's resolution of distress through play. Journal ofChild Psychology and Psychiatry 25:477-83.
  3. Gariepy, Nadine, and Nina Howe. The therapeutic power of play: Examining the play ofyoung children with leukaemia. Child: Care, Health and Development 29:523-37. Heim, Christine, and Charles B. Nemeroff. 2001. The role of childhood trauma in the neurobiology ofmood and anxiety disorders: Preclinical and clinical studies. Biological Psychiatry 49:1023-39.
  4. Bateman, Chris, and Lennart E. Nacke. "The neurobiology of play." Proceedings of the International Academic Conference on the Future of Game Design and Technology. ACM, 2010.
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