The Science of Play: 3 Poems and a Movie

(Newton Daly/Lifesize/Getty Images)

Yeats, Frost, Wilbur, Kubrick 'Shining': Great artists lead the scientists on how play can help make people smarter, wiser and less violent.

Nature's Edge Notebook #21       

Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions

Robert Frost's two hulking tramps beat the neurobiologists to the punch.

Sometimes, great artists seem to be ahead of the scientists.

Take the case of three poets and a filmmaker who each anticipated what the new science of play behavior is only now finding.

Psychological and biological studies are beginning to show how a better understanding of the power and importance of play activity in humans (and many other creatures) may help people to be…

  • more likely to win a Nobel Prize… or succeed in any field;
  • less likely to become violent killers;
  • better able to maintain basic sanity in hard times and new crises;
  • better able to handle deep grief… and even to emerge stronger from the depression or anguish of experiencing the existential "abyss" that most any human may experience.

Starting in the 1990s, illuminating studies by leading researchers - neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, psychiatrist and play theorist Stuart Brown, evolutionary psychologist Gordon Burghardt, evolutionary ethologist Marc Bekoff, and a number of others - have nailed down these benefits of play in testable, peer-reviewed scientific language and assertions.

But poets W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur … and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick ('The Shining') … had already been there.

Decades before the scientific findings, theses artists had achieved, in beautiful and emotionally irrefutable ways, poetic and filmic expressions of the same general truths about play and play's offspring - gaiety, humor, wit, wisdom, and open-heartedness.

Are the great artists somehow more fully attuned to new insights that are only just beginning to emerge among fact-hungry scientists?

This power of great artists to precede the scientists in new discoveries has been noted before, in other centuries and other cultures.

Artists and scientists are, after all, exploring the same world.

The impulses that prompt scientists to commit to spending long years seeking "facts" that can illuminate and predict events in the real world may often be spurred by questions and intuitions already finding expression in the culture around them.

In any case - and not to spoil the fun of this reporter's game of comparison by asking it to be too precise - here are four examples from the fields of play.

Example 1a. - Scientific Finding: The Best Work May Also Be Play

  • That for many of the most successful people, including Nobel Prize winners, work and play turn out to be the same thing.

In a series of interviews with established physicists, theologians, economists and other highly successful thinkers - including a number of Nobel Prize winners - Dr. Stuart Brown assessed their attitudes towards, and expressions of, both their work and their play activity.

"There was virtually no difference," he told ABC News.

For them, says Brown, work and play seemed to be much the same thing.

Even hard work.  Especially hard work - they relished the challenge, took it on as a kind of game.

(And as my father told me once, long ago, "The strong man loves the race.")

Their natural urge to play had somehow been directed toward the work they had chosen to spend their time on. It had helped their enterprise to flourish.

Example 1b. - Poet's Finding: 'Two Tramps in Mud Time':

Robert Frost's poem "Two Tramps in Mud Time" - published in 1934 - seems to arrive at much the same conclusion.

It begins in his front yard on an April day in a moment of play:

Out of the mud two strangers came And caught me splitting wood in the yard. And one of them put me off my aim By hailing cheerily "Hit them hard!"

From the start, Frost is being playful - almost giving the game away with that word "caught" - already hinting that there might be something naughty about splitting wood in his own yard.

And of course, in the view of two out-of-work lumberjacks, there is.

It's not only because Frost is "giving a loose to my soul" - as he puts it with an enticingly playful grammatical looseness.

(SPOILER ALERT: If you want to read the whole poem first, enjoy it for the first time yourself, before we go on - it's not long, and it's lots of fun - see it here.)

After rejoicing for several stanzas in the perfect if delicate balances of an April day - between cold and warmth, dead land and living summer - Frost recounts what he already knew, and had been playfully procrastinating about since the beginning of the poem, concerning the unemployed but cheerful men at his fence:

Nothing on either side was said. They knew they had but to say their say And all their logic would fill my head: As that I had no right to play With what was another man's work for gain. My right might be love but theirs was need. And where the two exist in twain Theirs was the better right - agreed.

Notice how effortlessly Frost equates "play" and "love" there? He loved playing with wood-chopping in his yard on a tremulously beautiful April day.

Then the great poet moves in for the kill:

But yield who will to their separation, My aim in living is to unite My avocation and my vocation As my two eyes make one in sight. Only where love and need are one, And the work is play for mortal stakes, Is the deed ever really done For Heaven and the future's sakes.

(Frost is using "avocation" here in the good old fashioned sense of a happy distraction, done for the fun of it, like a hobby, and "vocation" in the sense of committed profession, a serious calling, or even a job.)

Those last four lines seem to be delivering the same truth now found by modern scientists and psychologists who, in assessing the "play histories" of the most successful people find, to use Frost's words, that their "work is play for mortal stakes."

This reporter had a great teacher long ago who advised us to "try to chose an occupation the detail work of which you love doing - because that's what you're going to be spending your life doing."

And there's the related expression, heard so often in recent years: "Find your passion" - the implication being that both you and the world will be the better for it.

Example 2a. - Researchers' Finding: 'Memory Portraits' of 9/11

  • That play helps make life's inevitable griefs bearable and survivable.

An analysis of the many brief "memory portraits" of those who died in the World Trade towers on 9/11 found that by far the largest group of them were memories of the lost loved ones and friends at play.

The daily feature in the New York Times entitled "Portraits of Grief" was eventually compiled in a book, "Portraits: 9/11/01."

Researcher Alice White, at the request of Stuart Brown, sorted through all of them, and kept finding reminiscences of play acitivity.

Brown and other researchers exploring the role of play behavior in the maintenance of mental equilibrium (in humans and in other species) often write about the unique ability of play behavior - at any age - to strengthen our emotional ability to deal with the unexpected, even when it is frightening or dreadful.

Play, they write, is a kind of practice risk-taking. It playfully loosens expectations that are too rigid, leaving us a little more pliable when adversity comes, and thus more likely to bend but not break in evil winds.

And play, as neuroscientist Panksepp and others have found in their explorations of its pathways in the brain, naturally produces feelings of happiness and joy.

It's not surprising, they suggest, that many memories chosen to describe dear ones lost would be full of accounts of play.

And it is not uncommon at memorials and funerals to hear recollections of playful attributes - a natural instinct to offer the bereaved at least some reason, however poignant, to smile

Example 2b. - Poet's Finding: Gaiety Transfiguring All That Dread

In 1938, as World War II was looming, Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote one of his greatest and most widely acclaimed poems, "Lapis Lazuli." (The title refers to a medallion he had been given that was carved out of a piece of the semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli.)

The poem asserts with startling clarity how an affect - an attitude - of "gaiety" may emerge in those who become most fully aware of the countless and universal tragedies that the world keeps serving up to our mortal and hope-loving species.

(SPOILER ALERT: You can read this poem - it's not long - here.)

Yeats cites the examples of tragic Shakespearean heroes Hamlet and Lear, Ophelia and Cordelia, and then adds the surprising lines that "They, if worthy their part in the play/Do not break up their lines to weep."

He describes a mysterious inner gaiety that emerges in these archetypes of universal suffering:

"Gaiety transfiguring all that dread."

Yeats tells of humanity's long history of endless war, wrack and ruin … and then universalizes his point: "All men have aimed at, found, and lost…"

He goes on to describe three ancient Chinese men (carved into the medallion), one of them a servant carrying a musical instrument.

He pictures them looking look out across the world from "the little half-way house," that is sweetened by "plum or cherry branch," to which they've climbed.

Yeats finds his own writer's delight here, despite all the global horror he has just summoned to mind, and finishes his poem with another surprising - even daring - emergence of gaiety:

                                       …and I Delight to imagine them sitting there; There, on the mountain and the sky, On all the tragic scene they stare. One asks for mournful melodies; Accomplished fingers begin to play. Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes, Their ancient, glittering eyes are gay.

Clearly, nothing can lessen the loss of friends and loved ones, be it in terrorist attack or in any death or suffering - and William Butler Yeats had already suffered his own tragedies, and sensed other great suffering and loss coming soon to the world, as it did.

But here Yeats made a radical assertion about the eternal role of our inborn capacity and urge for gaiety and play - not unlike that more recently discovered and explained by scientists - in the recovery of the equilibrium necessary to go on in an inevitably dangerous and often indifferent world.

Example 3a. - Scientific Finding: Suppressing Play Can Lead to Killing

  • That severe suppression of a person's natural impulse to play can make it more likely the person will become violent, even a killer.

Brain scientist Jaak Panksepp has identified inborn structures deep in the brainstem that, from birth on, produce the impulse to play - even rough and tumble play, which produces so many life lessons - and also triggers a rewarding feeling of pleasure and happiness that keeps prompting the occasional return to play activity throughout life. (As we reported in an earlier Nature's Edge Notebook.)

Being so built in (everyone is born with this biologically based need to play) it is in effect, says Panksepp, a natural right, especially since its suppression may lead to mental disability, and even to dangerous behavior.

A panel of experts found such a pattern when they examined the psychology and the brain of Charles Whitman, the well-known Texas Tower Sniper who shot his wife and mother, then 14 more people, also wounding 32 others from his high perch, before he was killed by police.

After thorough examination, the panel totally and formally dismissed the small tumor that may have started growing in Whitman's brain as in any way helping to explain his killing spree (though the false belief that it was found to be the cause still persists).

Instead, they discovered that he - like a number of other multi-murderers who have appeared to "snap" - suffered a lifelong suppression of play by  a strict authority figure - in Whitman's case, his father.

"A playless life, especially an early life without play," says Brown, seems to "make it more likely that a person may lack a sense of identity with the feelings of others." (As reported in another Notebook.)

Example 3b. - Filmmakers' Finding:  All Work, No Play… and Genocide

SPOILER ALERT!   If you have not seen "The Shining" with Jack Nicholson, skip this example and move on to Example 4. It is simply too great a movie to not experience it for the first time unspoiled by any preconceptions.

Numerous academic books and articles have described how Stanley Kubrick's 1980 classic horror film, "The Shining," depicts not only the story of a man who tries to kill his family in a snow-bound hotel, but also clearly recounts metaphorically the common patterns of humanity's countless genocides, including those of the American Indians, and the Nazi Holocaust.

The film's chief protagonist and victim, played by Jack Nicholson, is hopelessly stuck on work alone, and refuses to play with his wife and son in the snow, all of which makes him a dangerously dull boy, (as mentioned in an earlier Notebook).

In fact, the film is filled with many references to the suppression of natural play behavior.

The owners of the hotel in the movie do not want to open it for winter sports.

The supposedly fun and playful cartoon characters surrounding the boy make no inroads into his disturbed mind, its natural play instincts severely restricted by an abusive and alcoholic father.

The father himself suffers an ultimately fatal play deficit as he keeps trying to please the suave but soulless middle managers who, like so many middle managers in real genocides, shame the weak male into illogical violence, their insane demands and his extreme "play deficit" rendering him ultimately devoid of any "identity with the feeling of others" (as researcher Brown puts it above) - even with the feelings of his own wife and son.

Example 4a. - Scientific Finding: Play, Sanity and 'Life Worth Living'

  • That healthy play activity helps maintain mental health, encourages basic sanity… and even, in a deep, biological way, helps "make life worth living."

Since the turn of the century, the wide ranging work of all the play behavior experts cited above - Burghardt, Bekoff, Brown, Panksepp, and many others - has continued to turn up abundant and varied evidence of how play behavior may help produce and maintain both sanity and delight in species ranging from ant to rat, fish to dog, corvid to cephalopod, and bear to man.

The data biological, neurological and behavioral reveal that in the regularly playful, both brains and minds (the internal and external expressions of brains) are kept more flexible and able to access a far greater variety and complexity of ideas and information.

These findings comport with a new definition of sanity, often recognized now among scientists and psychologists as involving "maximum complexity with maximum flexibility."

True sanity, it says, gives a person far more options with which to respond to any given situation… and even do so, when possible, with an inborn sense of delight, if not joy or pleasure.

These leading experts are now quantifying the degree to which play behavior may strengthen the molecular expression in the brain of hormones and other chemicals that help produce feelings of satisfaction, delight, joy, amusement… and even spur pleasant if helpless bursts of giggles, twitters and belly laughs (those natural eruptions that are little fun if you merely fake them).

It's all leading researchers to explore how the newly discovered and embedded emotional play-and-reward systems in our brainstems may be engaged - or not - in the fundamental impulses and conscious feelings that help us enjoy simply being alive.

Example 4b. - Poets' Finding: A Delight in Being 'Blessed by Doubt'

A quarter of a century earlier, our much honored American poet Richard Wilbur (who is still turning out choice poems today in his early 90s) wrote a poem that managed to end up beautifully, and playfully, stating much the same.

And it manages to do so with a calm and happy tone of delight - something not often to be sensed in the necessarily massive tables and complex algorithms of scientific labors.

It is short enough - just 20 lines - to present here in its entirety:

             APRIL 5, 1974

The air was soft, the ground still cold. In the dull pasture where I strolled Was something I could not believe. Dead grass appeared to slide and heave, Though still too frozen-flat to stir, And rocks to twitch, and all to blur. What was this rippling of the land? Was matter getting out of hand And making free with natural law? I stopped and blinked, and then I saw A fact as eerie as a dream. There was a subtle flood of steam Moving upon the face of things. It came from standing pools and springs And what of snow was still around; It came of winter's giving ground So that the freeze was coming out, As when a set mind, blessed by doubt, Relaxes into mother-wit. Flowers, I said, will come of it.

Those last three lines pretty much says it all - and shows it all, as well. They make you feel a plain delight in their own graceful and unobtrusive wit.

And how did the poet arrive at such a wonderful, blooming metaphor - one that itself brings a smile and good feeling along with its diamond-clear intellectual insight?

Notice how playful are the preceding lines, as he describes his perceptions and responses to a wildly unpredictable world that is suddenly playing a joke on his senses:

Was matter getting out of hand And making free with natural law?

And how playful with language itself, as the poet allows the register of his usage to be loosened enough to come up with a perfect - and perfectly playful - pun:

It came from winter giving ground…

Through the lively play of language, words exploring their potential meanings in a tussle with each other for the fun of it, "for mortal stakes," (for like his old friend and teacher, Robert Frost, Wilbur is also playing not only for fun but also to offer us a real beauty) - the poet is, by the end of the poem, finally free and able to foresee an old world born anew, and to enjoy the prospect of a new summertime of this dangerous world's life in its rich and blossoming complexity.

And all emerging from a simple stroll in a heretofore cold and hard-frozen pasture.

It reminds me of one of my favorite lines from social psychologist and author Karl E. Scheibe, who once remarked:

"There's no hope!!  Of course, I could be wrong."


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This is eleventh in a series on animal intelligence and the science of play behavior :

1-   " Hunting With a Most Endangered Hunter - Dateline Botswana" At:     (Nature's Edge Notebook #11)

2-  "Dogs Use Subway, Cat Takes Bus, And Other Adventures in Animal Intelligence."   At:     (Nature's Edge Notebook #12)

3-  "Who Needs Words? Crows?  You? Wild Gorillas? Alison Krauss?"  At:    (Nature's Edge Notebook #13)

4-   "How Would a Prairie Dog Describe You? Just Ask One!" At:    (Nature's Edge Notebook #14)

5-  "Dolphins Reported Talking Whale in Their Sleep: Freud's 'Royal Road to the Unconscious'  may have surfaced at a pool in France." At:     (Nature's Edge Notebook #15)

6-  "Fun and Play Are Key to Survival for Bears, Dogs, Humans, Birds, and Maybe Even Ants." At:    (Nature's Edge Notebook #16)

7- " Is Universe Made to Make You Giggle? Play Seen in Humans, Fish, Atoms, and the Universe. A Self-Organizing Quirkiness" is suspected by experts in nature itself …   from ants to atoms to distant galaxies." At:  ( Nature's Edge Notebook #17)

8-  "Lessons Learned by Tickling Rats. Chirping Rats and Stand-up Comics: Play and laughter is found deep in the brain stem alongside rage and lust." At:    (Nature's Edge Notebook #18)

9 - " The Joy of Your Brain… and the Dark Side of Laughter: A "seemingly quirky finding" peers into animal minds. It may also help show how Nazis abused play and laughter to horrid ends." At:    (Nature's Edge Notebook #19)

10 - "Adult Treehouses for Your Play Deficit (And Inner Monkey) - Worldwide surge in fully furnished treehouses: new "secret places" to help restore a little health and sanity at any age." At:     (Nature's Edge Notebook #20)

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