The PLAY System: Experimentation, Joy and Preparation for a Social Life

This article is the seventh and final in my series in my series on the late Dr Jaak Panksepp’s model of the neurological origins of human and animal emotions. Follow these links or earlier articles on the CARE, FEAR, RAGE, SEEKING , LUST and GRIEF Systems.


Children of this age (age 6) have games which come by natural instinct; and they generally invent them of themselves whenever they meet together. As soon as they have reached the age of three, all the children from three to six must meet together at the village temples. Moreover, the nurses of these children must watch over their behaviour, whether it be orderly or disorderly. Plato’s Laws


Nothing is as rewarding to young children as play.

I recall when my own children were young that play was their most-desired activity. Play was more sought after than necessities for survival, like food or affection. I used to marvel at the preference to play over sweets – how could such an inclination have evolved?

And this love of play isn’t unique to humans. Most mammals play, usually rough and tumble play-fighting. Like hunger, the urge to play builds in young rats over time. Rats who are denied play (for example by enclosing them in tight spaces which make play difficult) show more motivation to play and will play for longer than rats with ready access to play spaces.

Neuropsychologist, Jaak Panksepp, believes that play is a common brain system shared amongst mammals, which he calls the PLAY system (capitalised to differentiate from the common usage of the word play).

But what is play, and why is it so enticing for us mammals, especially our young?

What and Why of Play?

Panksepp states that “it’s hard to define play, but you know it when you see it”. There are some hallmarks of play, however. Playful activities are done for their own sake, and don’t have an immediate benefit. Play bears some resemblance to adult activities but is usually an incomplete or exaggerated version of them. Play is fun, pleasurable or reinforcing.

The major theories of play contend that it serves as a preparation for adulthood. Play presumably prepares youngsters by practicing physical and social skills vital for later in life. It can be detrimental to the development of humans and animals to deny play. Panksepp cites some interesting research which links the denial of play and ADHD symptoms.

Of the greatest research interest to Panksepp is play activities amongst rats, who typically play-fight. In such interactions, the dominant (usually larger) rat will allow itself to lose the play fight approximately 50% of the time. Dominant rats who fail to do this usually lose play partners and become isolated. In this manner, play teaches a valuable social lesson.

Humans obviously have a much larger range of play behaviours, some of which have no resemblance to play-fighting. Panksepp theorises that this is because PLAY is a primary process emotion. The primary urge of the PLAY system is toward play-fighting. Humans, being complex animals, discharge our PLAY urges in complex ways. Organised sports, dress up, doll use and even videogames are examples of how the human PLAY urge manifests.

Play and the Brain

Panksepp identifies a number of brain areas are activated during play, but none could be said to be the crucial PLAY centre. According to Panksepp “the closest thing we have” to a PLAY centre of the brain are certain nuclei in the thalamus which process touch information. Panksepp seems to think that there is a link between tickling and play, and he presents evidence of this in humans and in rats.

The PLAY system, like the LUST system, is very sensitive to unmet physical needs. A child and an infant rodent will avoid play when scared or when starving. Once these more basic needs are met, the PLAY urge quickly bounces back.

The PLAY system is also sensitive to the activation of other systems. The SEEKING system seems to override PLAY. For this reason, stimulant drugs (such as ADHD medication) stifle the urge to play. Panksepp speculates that ADHD is a “disorder” of play deprivation, which is subsequently treated with a drug that diminishes the play urge. It would be interesting to see what overuse of addictive phones and other electronic devices do to the PLAY urge.

There seems to be some link between PLAY and dreaming. Panksepp has some interesting speculations about the link between REM sleep state (Rapid Eye Movement – when we dream) and PLAY. Both of these states involve an imaginative world when experimentation reigns and possibility is born.

PLAY in the Productive Era

Play is threatened within modern life due to its seeming uselessness.

Childhood is smaller and safer nowadays. The comforting tyranny of parenting looms much larger in the lives of my children than it did in mine. Children benefit from engaging in self-directed free play, which can seem like timewasting or a nuisance to adult eyes.

And, even adults can benefit from play. A life which holds playfulness is a more joyful place. Play opens up new horizons, opens up new possibilities.

I added the quote above from Plato (originally cited in Panksepp’s book) to highlight that two and half millennia ago, the importance of play was recognised. In recent years, there has been a greater awareness of the importance of play.

After all, all work and no play make Jack a dull boy.

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