Play – Do Something Novel Today

One of the biggest things lacking in American culture is play; doing something unscripted, unregulated, solely because it’s entertaining.

By this I don’t mean video games. I have no doubt that people spend plenty of time staring at repetitive flashing lights on a screen. I’m talking about the sort of physical play that gives you a sense of flow.

Flow, as defined by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.

Think of an activity like snowboarding or surfing. In these sports, you’re generally there just for the simple pleasure of moving through and responding to a changing environment. There is an inherent element of novelty to each ride and each wave. The snow or wave will never be exactly the same and the path you take or exactly how you ride it will be a little different each time.

When you’re in the process of experiencing physically novel sensations, your brain is constantly sending outputs and receiving feedback in order to learn how to make predictions.

Think of how many times you had to fall before you finally got up on a surfboard. At some point your neocortex had a sufficient level of connections to know what to expect at the moment your feet hit the board and how to direct your body from there, but before that happened, there was a lot of swimming.

Once popping up becomes second nature (it’s well ingrained at a low level in the cerebral cortex) you’ll start playing with learning how to turn into the wave, or cut back, or do the same thing on a bigger, more powerful wave. As one skill is learned, another is built on top of it.

Experiencing novel sensations like this and creating new synaptic connections from them is essentially mental exercise. Your brain responds with a release of neurotransmitters like dopamine that flood your mind with a pleasant, rewarding sensation. It just feels good.

How often do you incorporate this sort of thing into your life? When was the last time you did something physically just to see what it would feel like? You don’t need to intellectualize it, just play.

Last week, we finished our usual workout ahead of time. We started looking at the ropes hanging from the ceiling, the I beams running in between them and one of us said, “Do you think it would be possible to move across those?”

“What do you think would happen if…”

What followed was a progressive game that, along with actually being a great workout, was refreshingly fun.

This is your homework. This is part of living a physical life. Learn what your body can do. You don’t have to clamber around on 20 foot high I beams from your fingertips, but sometime this week, leave your spreadsheet and your stopwatch and your clipboard alone and just play. Find something you’ve never done before and see what happens.


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