Saturday, March 27, 2010

Life as Play

Just how important is play for adults? According to psychiatrist Stuart Brown, who has studied it for years, it’s not just important, but necessary.

He writes, “A severely play deprived child demonstrates multiple dysfunctional symptoms -- the evidence continues to accumulate that the learning of emotional control, social competency, personal resiliency and continuing curiosity plus other life benefits accrue largely through rich developmentally appropriate play experiences.”

Play enables us to innovate, problem-solve, and to be happy, smart, resilient human beings. Brown also said “highly successful people have a rich play life.” Some unsuccessful men he studied was a group of murderers in Texas, whom he had found were extremely play-deprived as children.

Murderers, of course, lack empathy.

I was reminded of Brown when I discovered that psychologists who study relationships have found they can watch a 15-minute tape of a couple and predict divorce with a 95% accuracy rate. They can watch the tape with the sound off and look for microexpressions of, first and foremost, contempt.

The other three expressions and behaviors they look for are defensiveness, stonewalling, and criticism.

Watching five minutes of a tape gives a 90% accuracy rate of divorce. Three minutes gives an 80% accuracy rate.

I’ve heard these four traits referred to as The Four Horseman of Divorce. I should find it amazing that four traits predict so much, but I don’t. I have known people who consistently engaged in anger, shaming, contempt, interruption, and ridicule. Much to their surprise, their relationships have never worked out. I believe all of those emotions are indicative of a lack of empathy.

The opposite of those four negative traits, in my mind, is respect, listening to the person, and not interrupting them. There are no attempts at manipulation and control. In a word, empathy is shown.

It sounds to me as if people who have so many of those four negative traits are not having any fun. In other words, they can’t play. It may sound as if respect, listening to the other person, and not interrupting them isn’t play, but I think it is. It may not always necessarily be play, but you can’t have play without those three traits.

I am reminded of how improvisation comedy works. The first rule is: deny no suggestion. Whatever someone says, never say no to it. If you say no, the other person has to go in a different direction.

“Accept all offers made,” writes Keith Jonestone, one of the founders of improvisation comedy, “which is something no ‘normal’ person would do.”

If they say yes, the players can build on it. It flows. It’s serious but spontaneous. It’s play, based on not interrupting, listening, and respect. There is no defensiveness or stonewalling, either.

An example given (and I paraphrase) were two people playing a doctor and patient.

Doctor: We have to amputate your leg.

Patient: Don’t do that!

That one wasn’t funny.

The second one.

Doctor: We have to amputate your leg.

Patient: I’m quite attached to it.

The second one was funny, because the first suggestion was not denied.

Those involved in improvisation are offstage rather serious about their craft. Onstage they are funny. Art imitates life: it has its funny and serious aspects.

You can say life is an art. You have to learn how to play, and play is a serious thing. Watch any kid playing. They’re not having “fun.” They are absorbed in what they are doing, enjoying it thoroughly, but serious about it.

Those Four Horsemen, along with attempts at manipulation and control, are the exact opposite of play. So, adults who can play should have better relationships with other people. That is, if the others can play, too.

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