Content warning: This post mentions play deprivation and neglect, and the embedded video discusses this in more depth, along with violence, mental illness, and animal cruelty.
Watch this (with the content warning above in mind if needed!):
(For some reason the embedding isn’t allowing me to bookmark the starting time, so skip to 1:20 – though the introduction is pretty interesting. And so is the bit just afterwards, where Dr Brown talks about his work with a serial killer. Or, you know what, just watch the whole thing. It’s ALL pretty interesting.)
I’ve mentioned before that mammals deprived of play die. As Brown goes on to discuss in the above video (at 11:41), one specific story of how that happens comes from experiments with rats. Rats deprived of play as pups, and a group of normal/playful control rats, were both exposed to stimuli suggesting a hungry cat was nearby. Naturally, both kinds of rats hid from the mortal threat. But where the normal rats would eventually, cautiously, poke their noses out to see if the cat was gone, the play-deprived rats never did. They literally wasted away because they refused to risk coming back out. When Brian Sutton-Smith said that the opposite of play is not seriousness or work, but depression, he had in mind the full, potentially catastrophic disorder.
Contrast that fearfulness to the husky in this video clip, who is confronted by a clear threat she is unable to avoid (note her chain). Instead she shows incredible courage and a kind of transformative engagement with the situation. She doesn’t seek to ignore, deny or escape the polar bear: she engages in what improv theatre (a fascinating form of play that you could describe as “stage play without a stageplay”) calls “yes, and”, acknowledging and accepting the other while bringing herself… to bear? into play? There are too many puns here… while asserting herself onto the situation.
Obviously risk-taking is a double-edged sword, and recklessness can be as dangerous as fearfulness. Sometimes a cat is still there. But in play, young animals – including humans – test and learn their own limits, making their risk-taking not reckless (in the sense of lacking reckoning against reality) but informed. The playful rats weren’t gung-ho, they just were prepared to act on the basis that things sometimes change for the better.
The links here to innovation are obvious, and those to freedom, but surely so are the links to mental health. Courageous acceptance-and-optimism is necessary not only in engaging with the outer world but in confronting one’s own demons and resisting the emotional pressures of a misfiring brain.
Play helps us foster that kind of realistic courage, the willingness to face up to the scary and unpleasant and the hopeful determination to do what we can to make things better, even if we’re not sure of the outcome of those efforts. And that’s something we need more of.