Play, the Brain & Neuroplasticity


I just found a fascinating video that speaks very much to some of the things I’ve been reading lately (and have read about in the past.) It’s an interview with a man named Stephen Jepson. In his former life he was a very accomplished ceramics maker and teacher (Is that what they’re called?  Or potter?) He founded the World Pottery Institute and he even has a piece in the Smithsonian. Now his focus is Never Leave the Playground.

A grown-up at play

Jepson is in his 70s now and he literally spends his waking hours at play. He runs around, hops, crawls, juggles, rides a skateboard (and a variation thereof), elliptical bikes, and generally moves about the earth in very novel, random, playful ways. He’s not only having fun and staying fit, he’s also stimulating his brain in powerfully healthy ways according to research. More on that in a moment. Here’s the video:

Jepson says that his play improves such brain skills as cognition and memory. He seems to be very spot-on according to several things I’ve been reading.

Todd Hargrove discusses play in chapter four of A Guide to Better Movement . He suggests:

“In the contest of movement, play can be thought of as a safeguard against habitually using the same movement pattern to solve a particular motor challenge and ignoring potentially better solutions.

Thus we can look at our motivation to play as a natural incentive to experiment with new solutions, even if they don’t appear superior at first glance. We could also look at play as a way to ‘return to the drawing board’ or start over from scratch on a movement problem without preconceived notions about the right or wrong way to move.”

What this says to me is that novel, unusual movement gives us the opportunity to build a broad movement database or maybe a movement Swiss Army knife. We add to our available movement repertoire when we move in as many ways as possible in as many environments as possible: rolling on the ground, climbing, crawling, standing on different surfaces, moving at all speeds, lunging in many directions. Perhaps as a result, when confronted with a movement scenario that’s a little out of the ordinary our brain may say, “Oh, I’ve been here before. I have multiple strategies for moving safely and effectively here.”

The science of play & the brain

In his book, Hargrove references a NY Times article titled Taking Play Seriously. It states:

“For all its variety, however, there is something common to play in all its protean forms: variety itself. The essence of play is that the sequence of actions is fluid and scattered. In the words of Marc Bekoff, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado, play is at its core ‘’a behavioral kaleidoscope.’”

 ‘I think of play as training for the unexpected,’ Bekoff says. ‘Behavioral flexibility and variability is adaptive; in animals it’s really important to be able to change your behavior in a changing environment.’ Play, he says, ‘leads to mental suppleness and a broader behavioral vocabulary, which in turn helps the animal achieve success in the ways that matter: group dominance, mate selection, avoiding capture and finding food.”

This flexibility and growth potential of the brain is known as neuroplasticity. Though Stephen Jepson doesn’t use that word in his interview, he’s talking all about neurplasticity as he describes the benefits to his brain and both vigorous physical activity and play. His thoughts are supported by research:

  • Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, Beneficial effects of physical exercise on neuroplasticity and cognition: “The results suggest that physical exercise may trigger processes facilitating neuroplasticity and, thereby, enhances an individual’s capacity to respond to new demands with behavioral adaptations. Indeed, some recent studies have suggested that combining physical and cognitive training might result in a mutual enhancement of both interventions.”
  • Archives of Medical Research, Physical activity, brain plasticity, and Alzheimer’s disease: “We conclude from this review that there is convincing evidence that physical activity has a consistent and robust association with brain regions implicated in age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. “
  • In Runner’s World Sweat Science column, Alex Hutchinson discusses research from the European Journal of Applied Physiology. He says, “Sure enough, the… test showed that the skill athletes had greater motor cortex plasticity than non-athlete controls, while the endurance athletes showed no change.”
  • The Importance of Play, Dr. David Whitebread, University of Cambridge: “For example, playful rats have been shown to have significantly elevated levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is recognised to have a central role in developing and maintaining neural plasticity (or, the ability to learn). They have also demonstrated that play supports novel neural connections and changes the architectural structure of significant brain regions. Play deprived rats became more aggressive to other rats, were less able to mate successfully, and showed heightened levels of fear and uncertainty in novel environments.” (To be clear, this is a rat study but similarities have been seen in observation of humans.)

Inside my brain

All of this is enormously fascinating and inspiring to me. It has me thinking a lot about my own fitness process as well as that of my clients. I’ve been doing a little indoor rock climbing lately and that’s a completely different type of workout. I’ve also done a little bit of cross-country skiing and I hope to take a lesson and increase my skill there. I look forward to trail running and mountain biking soon. I find both activities highly engaging, and both offer endless opportunities to negotiate with gravity in myriad different ways.

I’ve discussed my recent experience with the FASTER Global course this summer (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV). As a result, my eyes (and brain) have been opened very wide to almost infinite opportunities for innovative, play-like movement strategies.

My hope is that my clients are having some degree of fun already but now I’m thinking much more about injecting an aspect of play into our sessions. Lots to think about…

Health & Fitness News: Cooked Food Grows the Brain; High-Carb Diet Contributes to Alzheimer’s; Lifting Weights Helps the Brain and Protects Against Metabolic Syndrome; Lactose Tolerance & Evolution; Tighten Your Left Fist to Perform Better


A wide range of interesting things have popped up in health-and-fitness news. You should know about this stuff!

Cooked Food Grows the Brain:

“If you eat only raw food, there are not enough hours in the day to get enough calories to build such a large brain.  We can afford more neurons, thanks to cooking.”
– Dr. Suzana Herculano-Houzel, neuroscientist, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil

The human brain has far more neurons than our primate relatives such as apes and chimps. Relative to our body weight, we carry far more brain mass than our ape relatives, and we use far more energy to run our neurology than apes. Why? And how have we managed to acquire all the energy to manage this process over the past several hundred thousand years? It seems that the answers lie in humans cooking their food. An article from the Guardian titled Invention of cooking made having a bigger brain an asset for humans discusses the issue further. The article is informed by a study from the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

High-Carb Diets May Contribute to Alzheimer’s:

“Older people who load up their plates with carbohydrates have nearly four times the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, a study out Tuesday finds.”
– USA Today

There’s more news regarding food and neurological function. USA Today reports on a recent study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease indicates that a high-carbohydrate diet (as is suggested by the FDA) may contribute to early-onset dementia. Medline also reported on the study saying:

“Those who reported the highest carbohydrate intake were 1.9 times more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than those with the lowest carbohydrate intake. Those with the highest sugar intake were 1.5 times more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than those with the lowest intake.

Those whose diets had the highest levels of fat and protein were 42 percent and 21 percent less likely, respectively, to develop mild cognitive impairment than those with the lowest intake of fat and protein.”

The Medline report also makes the following important observation saying, “While the researchers found an association between sugar-laden, high-carb diets and mental decline, they did not establish a cause-and-effect relationship.”

I personally have lost weight by cutting carbs–particularly processed carbs such as cereal, bread, crackers, tortillas, muffins, etc–and replacing those calories with fibrous vegetables, fat and protein.  I’ve become convinced that an FDA-type high-carb diet is probably not the ideal way to eat for most people.

Lifting Weights Helps the Brain:

“Where previously we had seen positive associations between aerobic activity, particularly walking, and cognitive health, these latest studies show that resistance training is emerging as particularly valuable for older adults,”
Dr. William Thies, chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer’s Association

Of course I love any evidence that suggests lifting weights is good for you. I have particular interest in evidence that weights help us beyond simply building muscle and bone mass. Mind Your Reps: Exercise, Especially Weight Lifting, Helps Keep the Brain Sharp comes from Time. The article reports on four studies presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver.

I’d like to know what loads are best used in preventing Alzheimer’s. Does any type of strength training prevent Alzheimers or are certain exercises better than others? What’s the minimal effective dose to derive the benefits? I hope someone is looking into these questions.

Lifting Weights Protects Against Metabolic Syndrome:

“Research has linked greater muscle strength and muscle mass to lower rates of metabolic syndrome. Since lifting weights increases muscle strength and mass, it might also help to decrease the development of metabolic syndrome.”

Such a wonderful thing this weight training!  Science Daily discusses research by the National Strength & Conditioning Association that indicates lifting weights protects against metabolic syndrome. What is metabolic syndrome? The article says:

“Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of risk factors linked to increased rates risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. People with at least three out of five risk factors — large waist circumference (more than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women), high triglyceride levels, reduced levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL, or “good” cholesterol), elevated blood pressure, and high glucose levels — are considered to have metabolic syndrome.”

The proof keeps on stacking up. Lifting weights is a staple of healthy living.  Are you currently on a strength training program?  If not, why?

Lactose Tolerance & Evolution:

“Everywhere that agriculture and civilization went, lactose tolerance came along. Agriculture-plus-dairying became the backbone of Western civilization.”
– Slate

Humans are the only animals that consume milk beyond the age of infancy. (Not all humans actually. Two-thirds of us are lactose intolerant. Still, there are a lot more humans that drink milk in their adulthood compared to other mammals.) Why is this? What makes so many of us so different from other mammals? Are there advantages to lactose tolerance? The Most Spectacular Mutation in Recent Human History is from Slate Magazine. The article discusses the speed with which this genetic mutation spread and possible theories on why it ever happened at all. There are no solid answers to the questions here, but it seems that in much of the world, civilization and lactose tolerance have gone hand-in-hand:

“The plot is still fuzzy, but we know a few things: The rise of civilization coincided with a strange twist in our evolutionary history. We became, in the coinage of one paleoanthropologist, ‘mampires’ who feed on the fluids of other animals. Western civilization, which is twinned with agriculture, seems to have required milk to begin functioning.”

There clearly seem to be some advantages to a lot of people in consuming milk and/or other dairy products. There also appear to be some real disadvantages. Read the New York Times article Got Milk? You Don’t Need It for another view of milk consumption. The article states:

“Osteoporosis? You don’t need milk, or large amounts of calcium, for bone integrity. In fact, the rate of fractures is highest in milk-drinking countries, and it turns out that the keys to bone strength are lifelong exercise and vitamin D, which you can get from sunshine. Most humans never tasted fresh milk from any source other than their mother for almost all of human history, and fresh cow’s milk could not be routinely available to urbanites without industrial production. The federal government not only supports the milk industry by spending more money on dairy than any other item in the school lunch program, but by contributing free propaganda as well as subsidies amounting to well over $4 billion in the last 10 years.

I think the Times article raises some valid points. Clearly many of our fellow humans do fine without consuming milk as adults. The FDA guidelines insisting that we drink milk are a bit bogus, and completely influenced by the dairy industry. However, in lactose tolerant adults, I’m not sure milk is a bad thing. I haven’t been completely convinced one way or the other. I drink milk sometimes but not often. More often I consume cheese and yogurt which are fermented versions of milk.

Make a Fist to Perform Better:

“Athletes who made a fist with their left hand did better under pressure than when they made a fist with their right hand…”
– “Preventing Motor Skill Failure Through Hemisphere-Specific Priming: Cases From Choking Under Pressure,” Journal of Experimental Psychology

I find this article from the Atlantic enormously interesting. The results are in the quote above. In this study, right-handed athletes (Righties only were tested.) performed better when they made a fist in the left hand. What’s going on here? The article states:

According to the researchers, freaking out is primarily associated with the left hemisphere of the brain, while the right hemisphere deals more with mechanical actions. Meanwhile the cortex of the right hemisphere controls movements of the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body. So they figured that if you can purposely activate the right hemisphere — in this case, by making a fist or squeezing a ball with your left hand — it will improve physical performance and draw focus away from the ruminating left hemisphere.”

Interestingly, anyone who’s learned the RKC Hard Style of pressing has learned to make a fist in the opposite non-pressing hand. The effect is powerful. You get stronger when you do this! Maybe this study indicates why.