Jaak Panksepp on The Importance Of Play

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

BW: What is a good age for play? Can the old play, too?

JP: I think many of these emotional systems have a natural developmental time course, and vigorous physical play occurs only in animals. It declines after puberty. Old rats certainly don’t play, but old humans can. Still, physical play is for the young. But if animals indulge in a lot of play when young, they tend to remain playful and friendlier when older.

For human children, I think the “terrible two’s” reflect the onset of strong play urges At age 2, the desire for play becomes very intense. By age 6, most children develop enough cortical inhibition to be able to sit still in classrooms.  Before then, no child can sit still for too long. All very young children behave as if they have ADHD.

BW: Did you do any play research with humans?

JP: We did perhaps the first systematic experimental research on human children. But human physical play still has not been extensively studied. Developmental psychologists usually only study play with toys and games. We studied the play of  two friends — pairs of boys and girls at 4 to 7 years of age — in an empty room with mats on the floor but no toys. “Play and enjoy,” we told them, and videotaped their interactions for about half an hour. We scored about 20 behaviors such as running after each other, wrestling, pushing from the front, pushing from the back, laughing, and so forth. Surprisingly, there was hardly any difference between the play of young girls and boys, as the human play literature led us to believe. A lot of people have claimed that boys play more, but we don’t see that in our rats or our human studies. We think many of the reported gender differences in play are a result of learning rather than any intrinsic differences.

BW: Are there negative aspects to play?

JP: Play does have a dark side. When you just allow your children to do as they please, then play often leads to disagreements, and perhaps even bullying. One function of play is to take you to the edge of your emotional knowledge, so you can learn what you can and cannot do to others. Thus in our studies of play in “play sanctuaries,” we always had young supervisors who would help young people get over such problems. Whenever something bad happened, then we  quickly explained to the naughty child that they should be nice if they wanted to continue playing. They usually agreed, and readily learned to be good in order to have fun. We think children can learn many good social skills in this way. Thus play sanctuaries can be used to promote good behaviors.

BW: What is a play sanctuary?

JP: I think it is one of the most important things that children need to grow up well, perhaps even reduce the number of kids diagnosed with ADHD. In play sanctuaries caretakers could easily recognize childhood problems, those that may need special attention. Play sanctuaries could provide more children with the free play they often don’t get in the modern world.  They are also places where children can be instructed “naturally” in good behaviors, and those who  have difficulty playing might be given special attention. We might also need to train new kinds of child clinicians — those who really know how to play, not just talk and talk, not just test-test-test, but play. A real play-master.

BW: What do you think about the move for children to be in more structured environments earlier? Does that hurt their ability to play?

JP: I am sure it does. Play corresponds to brain needs at a certain time in life, it has a special energy that influence brain maturation. Thus, we have to have places where that can happen. I like to live in a small town, where free, undirected, natural play can happen. I believe the proper words to describe the current educational policy of “no child left behind” may be closer to “every child left behind.” We are neglecting the power of natural play and the physical activity that every child has to have to mature. Instead, we are focusing on reading, writing or mathematics at earlier and earlier ages. But if you really understood the power of play, every child might learn to enjoy mathematics. Perhaps if we introduced children to mathematics in playful ways, every child would be more likely to love it. Perhaps we should understand that cognition is not everything; we have to institutionalize more positive playful opportunities for our children. Indeed, many Head Start programs do that.

BW: What is your plan for the future?

JP: I am currently most interested in depression research, especially from the focus that positive emotions can counteract negative emotions. Some current antidepressants have success rates as low as 28 percent, as in the famous STAR*D trial. Development of new medications has been slow because we know so little about the primary-process positive emotions by studying similar mechanisms in animals. Animals do experience basic emotions not so dissimilar from humans. Through such research we we can understand that other animals are also feeling creatures with minds, and not just conglomerations of molecules.

I hope there will be more scientists with open minds willing to understand human feelings by studying shared neurochemical systems in animal brains.  If you really want to help people with depression, we have to find what causes psychological pain first, and see if positive feelings can counteract negative ones. And I think the emotional vocalizations — including the laughing sounds of animal — are currently the best indicators of positive feelings in animals. Focusing on molecules and behavior alone cannot provide complete solutions. Thus we have to envision brain functions as mind functions, and initiate neuroscientific discussions of how the brain creates mind not only in humans but also other animals.

Mind is a natural function of the brain.  Thus, what philosophers can contribute is as important as what scientists are doing, by encouraging the field of neuroscience to grow up. I think a richer discussion and study of the neuroscience of animal minds can make wonderful contributions right now to understanding the types of creatures that we are.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

3 Comments

  1. I just started a MOOC course about ‘Play’ and was not happy to find Panksepp’s material not mentioned in these early stages of the course. I am rectifying this by providing name and links likes yours in the comments section of the course. It is too early to know what the course convenors think of this addition but I assure you that having open access to such important material widens the input of this well attended MOOC. Thank you for providing so much to use as reference.

  2. Fascinating. As soon as I can get to it I am going to get one of your books. I really appreciated your information.

  3. I am extremely interested in looking at excessive alcohol consumption in youth as a form of play. If our children are not experimenting through play as as you say not developing fully their capabilities to interact with each other. Then they will find other ways of creating that space.
    Young people play so many games particularly physical ones when they drink. In Australia this occurs more frequently in parks where a series of games are undertaken.
    Thoughts?

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