Stuart Brown: How Does Play Shape Our Development? Dr. Stuart Brown says humor, games, roughhousing and fantasy are more than just fun. He came to this conclusion after conducting some somber research into the stark childhoods of murderers.
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How Does Play Shape Our Development?

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How Does Play Shape Our Development?

How Does Play Shape Our Development?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And today on the show - press play - ideas about why we play and why we shouldn't stop when we grow up. And if you're investigating the field of play, you kind of have to talk to Stuart Brown.

STUART BROWN: I'm the founder and president of the National Institute for Play, and I hope, even at my advanced years, still a player.

RAZ: Stuart is 82. And his organization, the National Institute for Play, funds research that explores the power of play - and not just for children, but for grown-ups, too.

What happens when you walk into the Institute of Play? Are there just, like, board games everywhere and trampolines and, like, rubber walls and clowns juggling?

BROWN: I love your imagination, Guy. My Institute for Play is a separate little office that sits about a hundred feet from my house. It's got a treehouse that's 30 feet over it...

RAZ: Wow.

BROWN: ...With wild turkeys walking around, a rope hanging for people to swing on. You know, we...

RAZ: It's like a real treehouse?

BROWN: It's a real treehouse. It has skylights and stained-glass windows. I got a bunch of grandkids. So particularly when they were younger, it was a magical place to storytell and listen to the trees creak and that sort of thing. So it's a grand little spot.

RAZ: Today Stuart Brown is one of the world's top experts on play. But the story of how he got there starts in a much darker place.

This is not something that you ever intended to research, right?

BROWN: Not at all.

RAZ: Yeah, so what's the story?

BROWN: Well, I remember it very vividly.

RAZ: It all started on August 1, 1966. Stuart was a young psychiatry professor at Baylor University in Texas.

BROWN: I was walking down the Baylor hall, moving to my office as a assistant professor of psychiatry, carrying books, and the dean of Baylor, Stanley Olson, was walking down the hall with a portable radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The time is 5:30.

BROWN: And the radio was broadcasting live from Austin - which is some distance from Houston of course - and you could hear gunshots.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: It started last night. A man reportedly killed his wife and his mother. That same man apparently rounded up an arsenal and supplies this morning and then went to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower. It was then that terror rained down from the Tower.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN SHOTS)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Charles J. Whitman...

BROWN: Charles Whitman.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...A 25-year-old Marine veteran who earned a sharpshooter rating while on active duty. He was identified by police as the sniper. Sirens screamed for the 90 minutes that the gun battle was in progress.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN SHOT)

BROWN: And this was live.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: By official count tonight, 49 persons were hit by gunfire - 16 dead and 33 injured.

BROWN: Which was then the largest mass murder in the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: But from the time the first call came in to the UT police at 11:48 a.m...

RAZ: At that time, Stuart Brown had coincidently been studying the psychology of aggression.

BROWN: So my boss said, well, I want you to try and figure out why this young man - why he perpetrated this horrible crime. And we were going to try and reconstruct the life and times of Charles Whitman, which we did in great detail.

RAZ: So this was a mystery. I mean, you were trying to figure out what the factors were that led to the shooting.

BROWN: Well, you know, there had been a number of factors of course. Whitman's father was an expert in firearms. Whitman was a crack shot, a history of violent and abuse. The father beat the mother virtually mercilessly about once a month. And he was bipolar.

RAZ: And then, he found out something else, something very specific about Charles's childhood.

BROWN: Well, we found out that the neighbors - who I interviewed and who I interviewed again 20 years later - had never seen little Charles Whitman engaged in what would've been considered spontaneous free play. Whenever he was crawling and exploring, the father would punish him. And when he was 4 years old, his father insisted he start playing the piano. And if he didn't practice when he was 4 and 5 years old, the father would beat him. His preschool teacher described him as too good, sitting in the corner and waiting to get a cue from the teacher as to how to behave rather than having the kind of anarchic, full-of-yourself playfulness that's normal childhood play.

RAZ: After researching Charles Whitman, Stuart thought that maybe missing out on childhood play could leave a mark, and in this case a devastating one. But Charles Whitman was just one research subject.

BROWN: And so I went to one prison, the Huntsville prison in Texas...

RAZ: ...Where Stuart Brown was able to meet 26 convicted murderers and interview them. Now, Huntsville, I should mention, is one of the most infamous prisons in America. And what Stuart found there, in every case - the same story.

BROWN: The lack of rough-and-tumble play in all 26 of these young murderers we studied and their lack of empathy appeared to me - and I say appeared to me - to be linked. And when you listen closely to a developmental trajectory in a person who has a real sense of putting themselves in the shoes of another, you go back into their histories and you hear them say, you know, when I was on a playground I punched a kid once, and he started to cry, and I began to realize that if he did that to me it would hurt, so I didn't do it again. And there is this sort of learned empathy that comes from interaction - direct interaction - with others.

RAZ: For years after studying those murderers in Huntsville, Stuart continued to research the childhoods of people like them and like Charles Whitman, and in particular how a lack of play could have affected their brains.

BROWN: It's very serious if it's early on in early development. Let's say from 7 or 8 months to 5 years and it's missing, that's really serious. But at any point in a lifetime, whether it's your lifetime now or mine in my early 80s, it is a very necessary part of being human. And so when you are in a state of play, part of your frontal lobe gets unhooked, and a lot more associations that are all over the rest of the brain kind of join in like a symphony.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BROWN: So although this is not quantifiable and good science yet, there is a lot of evidence from the animal world that play lights up the brain like nothing else.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BROWN: And in the process we get new connections, sort of new maps, and we also get mood uplift. We also get other kinds of connectedness that I think is good for us.

RAZ: What about, like, grown-ups? I mean, do you think that play can keep shaping and developing our brains - I mean, even as fully developed adults?

BROWN: Absolutely. I think there's evidence that it can. There really are some very heartening signs, even in a dementia ward, that when you bring play into a dementia setting that is specified for the play type that that person once enjoyed, that their need for medication and their level of agitation goes down as they get playful. So this is part of from birth to death there is a presence in our beings for playfulness.

RAZ: That makes total sense to me, but I also think that a lot of adults, you know, have sort of forgot how to do it - how to play.

BROWN: Well, I've got a friend by the name of Joe Meeker. He says carry a ball with you, you can toss it into any group anywhere and they'll throw it back and you can start playing.

RAZ: Yeah, I don't know. I'm in Washington, D.C. There's a lot of lawyers here. If you hit somebody on the head, like, they could sue you or something, you know?

BROWN: (Laughter) Yeah, that's true. Well, make sure it's a soft ball, like a tennis ball.

RAZ: Yeah, it would have to be really soft, yeah.

In his talk, Stuart Brown described one more way that play might keep us healthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BROWN: In the animal world, if you take rats who have - who are hardwired to play at a certain period of their juvenile years, they squeak, they wrestle, they pin each other - that's part of their play. If you stop that behavior on one group that you're experimenting with and you allow it in another group that you're experimenting with, and then you present those rats with a cat odor-saturated collar, they're hardwired to flee and hide. But the non-players never come out. They die. The players slowly explore the environment and begin again to test things out. That says to me that play may be pretty important for our survival.

RAZ: Stuart says you see the same sort of results in other mammals - and especially in intelligent ones, including primates and humans.

BROWN: What you see from their play clearly is that they explore options that they wouldn't explore otherwise if they hadn't played. So the exploration of the possible I think is one of the cliches about what play does. The capacity for play seems to me to allow us to take in novelty and newness, use it to adapt and become more flexible, and also have a good time in the process.

BROWN: The opposite of play is not work, it's depression. And I think if you think about life without play - no humor, no flirtation, no movies, no games, no fantasy, and, and, and - try and imagine a culture or a life, adult or otherwise, without play. And the thing that's so unique about our species is that we're really designed to play through our whole lifetime. So what I want to encourage you on an individual level to do is to explore backwards as far as you can go to the most clear, joyful, playful image that you have, whether it's with a toy or on a birthday or on a vacation, and begin to build from the motion of that into how that connects with your life now. And you'll find you may change jobs, which has happened to a number of people when I've had them do this in order to be more empowered through their play, or you'll be able to enrich your life by prioritizing it and paying attention to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's Stuart Brown. He runs the National Institute for Play. You can see his entire talk at ted.com.

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