Neurobiology of Play

Our brains contain at least seven primary-process emotional systems, shared by all mammals, that help us anticipate and respond to situations that promote or threaten our survival (Panksepp, 1998; Panksepp & Biven, 2012). These systems drive us to explore, to fear dangerous situations and to care for our children. They also drive us, especially children, to play.

Lesions to the parafascicular complex and posterior dorsomedial thalamic nuclei reduce play behaviors in rats, strongly suggesting that these areas make up part of the play circuit (Panksepp, 1998; Panksepp & Biven, 2012). Other brain areas that may be involved include the cerebellum, basal ganglia, and various hypothalamic areas but many of these areas are also involved in movement or aggression, both of which could affect one’s desire or ability to play. Neocortex, however, is not directly involved in play. Decorticated juvenile rats (neocortex ablated in infancy) show a normal desire to play but with some modest differences in the number and duration of play behaviors. However, these differences disappear when playing with non-decorticated play partners (Panksepp et al., 1994). [source: Scholarpedia]

Play In Childhood

Free play develops the neural connections in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the brain’s executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems, according to Prof. Sergio Pellis, professor at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. As children play their brains build new circuits in the PFC to help it navigate complex social interactions.

“The function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways,” says Jaak Panksepp at Washington State University. When playing and activating the neocortex, epigenetic changes are occurring that changes the brain. In the study of rats Panksepp found that “of the 1,200 genes that we measured, about one-third of them were significantly changed simply by having a half-hour of play.”

Play In Adulthood

“We don’t lose the need for novelty and pleasure as we grow up,” says Scott G. Eberle, Ph.D, editor of the American Journal of Play. Lack of play may be an important factor in predicting criminal behavior among murderers, while playing together can help couples rekindle their relationship and explore other forms of emotional intimacy, according to psychiatrist Stuart Brown from the National Institute for Play and author of the book Play.

More Information

National Institute for Play

Encyclopedia on Play

Play in Mind blog by Scott Eberle on Psychology Today

Panksepp, J., Normansell, L., Cox, J. F., & Siviy, S. M. (1994). Effects of neonatal decortication on the social play of juvenile rats. Physiology & Behavior, 56, 429-443.

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Panksepp, J., & Biven, L. (2012). The archaeology of mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotion: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.


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