The Primal Power of Play
Let's Get Psychophysical - Newsletter #14
Hello, it’s Kevin.
Here is your weekly list of 5 things I’ve found that promote wholeness, integration and “waking up” – rather than fragmentation, dis-integration and falling asleep.
This week is on the primal power of play.
We can play on many levels at once – physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually – but for most modern people they are compartmentalised and not very well integrated.
What happens if we allow our ancient animal instinct for ‘rough and tumble’ play to flow through and empower our higher cognitive functions and conscious aims?
Running With the Pack
by Mark Rowlands
The philosophy of running by a philosopher who runs. You will see reading this book that running is not merely physical at all, hence the scare quotes.
This is the same author as The Philosopher and the Wolf, a book I love and have read twice. He is a university professor who bought a wolf cub to discover that if he left him alone he would destroy the house, and so had to run long distance with him every day – plus take him to all his lectures!
A main theme of the book is the difference between doing something for its intrinsic value, versus doing it in order to get something else. Running just to run. Yes there are benefits, but that is not the reason to run. When you do something for its intrinsic value – even when it is often unpleasant, difficult and painful, as running often is – then it is no longer “work” and becomes “play.”
There are lots of interesting reflections on the relationship between mind and body, and how it changes over the course of a run. He keeps it in within the western philosophical tradition but it all converges on ideas most wisdom traditions talk about in one way or another.
I don’t run long distance like he does, and you don’t have to in order to enjoy the book. You can apply the same principle to whatever it is you do for its intrinsic value – or used to do for its intrinsic value, before social media and all the hustle and hacks ruined it for you.
The book has inspired me to get serious about running for a while. Actually it has inspired me to PLAY more with running for a while. I will never do the real long distance stuff – I’m more of sprinter by nature – but have started mixing it up with slightly longer distances, where I can get eventually into the “heartbeat of the run” as he calls it.
The heartbeat of the run. A beautiful psychophysical metaphor.
Short video with the late, great Jaak Panksepp, author of Affective Neuroscience.
“Depression actually blocks certain kinds of gene pathways and PLAY increases these gene pathways…. So it looks like depression and play are opposite sides of a coin.”
His basic idea is that there is an emotional system hardwired into the brain for PLAY, which we share with the other mammals. This means the “rough and tumble” physical play that young children do naturally, and if they don’t get enough of it early on it can stunt their social skills later in life.
If you tickle rats, they laugh! (These are lab rats, I wouldn’t go into a sewer and try it.)
The special type of chirping they do – when having fun playing with a human – is outside our range of hearing but can be recored in a lab. And even rats with their neocortex removed still learn to play normally and seem to be enjoying themselves.
And why would it not be laughter? Why would they not be experiencing joy? We have the same brain circuits underneath!
For more, see Jaak Panksepp’s:
Affective Neuroscience (see chapter 15, “rough and tumble play”)
Archaeology of Mind (chapter 10, “ancestral sources of social joy and laughter”)
Various presentations and interviews on Youtube.
So, we all have these ancient emotional systems, hardwired deep in the mammalian brain, and one of them is this need for play.
But us humans obviously have more recent brain areas that grew on top of these ancient structures. Can we integrate this primal need for play (unconscious) with the higher cognitive functions (conscious)?
Here is a long quote from F. Matthias Alexander on the child’s natural interest in the mechanics of movement. You will notice how this higher level “intellectual” play grows naturally out of the lower levels of emotional and physical play.
“THE characteristic note of true happiness is struck when the healthy child is busily engaged in doing something which interests it. It may be the little girl washing and wiping her tea-cups, or dressing and undressing her doll, or the little boy setting to work to make a toy train or cart with the aid of a piece of wood and a string, or piecing together some modern toy which, when completed, will be a house, or a bridge, or a working model of some machine.
The child is always attracted by machinery; indeed, to find out ” how it works ” is the natural desire of every healthy child, and it is therefore very significant that in schools where experiments have been made in re-education on a general basis, the children have become more interested in this work than in any other of their school activities.
They are not slow to recognize that they are themselves the most interesting machines, and their natural interest in mechanics finds full scope in the process of their own re-education.
Our experience has been that this interest, an intelligent interest in the working of their own psycho-physical mechanisms, is one that grows steadily and comprehensively. For the psycho-physical processes which precede and accompany the child’s desire to acquire a knowledge of the mechanical working of inanimate machinery are the same as those which are called into activity in connexion with the acquisition of the knowledge of the satisfactory use of its own mechanisms.
It should be obvious to all concerned that in any process of growth or development of the child or adult, experience in employing the mechanics of the psycho-physical organism should precede all other mechanical experience, and that any experiences gained later in the sphere of inanimate mechanical experimentation would thus be materially increased in value.
“Experience has proved to us that children are unusually interested in the working of their own psycho-physical machinery when the processes employed are concerned with re-education on a general and conscious basis.
They find a new interest in all activities to which they can apply an improving use of themselves, and their happiness in finding, for instance, that they can improve their games by a conscious general direction of themselves (a very different thing from the usual specific directions they receive in coaching lessons) is a happiness which increases with their psycho-physical improvement.
I shall now endeavour to show that the lack of real happiness manifested by the majority of adults of to-day is due to the fact that they are experiencing, not an improving, but a continually deteriorating use of their psycho-physical selves.”
– F. Matthias Alexander; Constructive Conscious Control
Now you are playing on three levels at once: physical, emotional and intellectual. You are reasoning about body mechanics then making new movements, that feel wrong, bad or impossible at first, but you do them anyway, it’s the rules of the game.
This form of consciously “integrated play” is training your brain in a very particular way. If you want evidence buy me an MRI machine and let’s go!
The psychophysical technique I teach in the posture lessons is much more like play than “exercise.” You are PLAYing with your own body mechanics, not WORKing out.
“Can you do these three movements all at the same time, let’s see.” “Do you think you will do it differently next time if you also inhibit this unwanted movement at the same time?”
“Can you do it even if it feels really weird, wrong and impossible, but just play along and see what happens?”
“Let’s look at the video and see if what you felt you were doing matches what we see you doing.. it doesn’t, you actually did the exact opposite, your feelings are lying to you! Isn’t that curious?!”
But “play” doesn’t mean it is always pleasant, or you will feel more at ease.
Often you feel uncomfortable, annoyed or frightened when your habitual sense of equilibrium is disturbed. But this is just how new habits feel – especially these habits of thought and movement which are so intimate you confuse them for “you.”
In each lesson I push you to make new movements and break through habits that would be difficult to make yourself do on your own. Watching a lesson doesn’t look like much, but it can be mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting.
Welcome to rough and tumble play: psychophysical edition.
(1) “Time is a child at play, moving pieces in a game. Kingship belongs to the child.”
(2) “Nature loves to hide.”
Maybe the whole cosmos simply runs on play.
Mysticism is just the ultimate game of hide and seek. With a few peek-a-boos thrown in from time to time to keep things interesting…
With the Ancient Greeks, other forms of this “sublimated” rough and tumble play are the tragedy and the dialogue. They both seem to be this same primal urge for animal play integrated with the higher cognitive functions – but expressed through very different personality types, or brain hemispheres, or to have different effects on different people at different times.
We call theatre productions plays, with the actors and spectators both playing ‘make-believe. And Socrates is clearly playing with ideas and enjoying the refined ‘rough and tumble’ of reasoned argument.
Wrestling with words. All part of the psychophysical gymnasium.
Running to run
The purpose of this experiment is to go from running as “work” to running as “play.”
Record yourself running in WORK mode: Have an exact plan, rigid start & finish times, fixed length, consistent speed, flat ground, no obstacles, and make it as repetitive as possible. Look at your body mechanics and facial expression etc., especially as you start to get tired.
Now let’s run in PLAY mode. When I say “have fun” in the tweet below, it’s not just a throwaway comment – I mean it as a formal practice instruction.
If you can make running into play, rather than work, you will do it for its own sake, for its intrinsic benefit, running just to run. You will feel more alive, and yes, you get more health and fitness benefits this way, but only as happy side effects.
Run in a way that a child would understand, that the child living in your brain does understand, and get your pleasure circuits activated. Make it fun.
Run through the woods, in and out of trees, ducking under branches etc.
Run on the beach where the water meets the sand, dodging people, jumping over sandcastles, and enjoying the “scenery” (social joy!)
Play with children “tag, you’re it…” and stop when they want.
Run with your dog, combine with fetch, go chase rabbits with him!
Record yourself running like this, and then look at your body mechanics, facial expressions, energy levels etc when in PLAY mode.
(Optional) Do this for one month instead of your current routine and watch it spill over into other areas of your life – a new way of being.
Have fun playing with yourself!
Thanks for reading,
If you want to play with your posture then book a 1-to-1 posture consultation and “body audit.”
I will analyse your body mechanics over Zoom and guide you through some psychophysical games to improve your posture, poise and presence.