A Note on Play: Observations on Improv

♦ A note I wrote on Facebook in early January, re-posted for your viewing pleasure. ♦

I always labor under the suspicion that there is a great deal of our brains that we don’t in fact use. Many scientists concur, but I don’t think much of scientists. I do think a lot of play, however.

Many of you have witnessed the giddy glee that overcomes me when presented with a game, especially a silly one. While some may dismiss the silly, I embrace it as an opportunity to prove once again that there is no box.

We are constantly exhorted to “think outside the box,” which only reinforces the parameters of unproductive thinking. We are encouraged to see the real possibilities outside of this box, which always makes me ask, “What box? Who put it there? What makes you think we are outside of it now?”

If you want to see, really see, reality and all of its great, glorious, dark, and dire possibilities, you must play.

Play, in essence, trains us not to remove “the box” but to exchange it, to substitute the rules and consequences of one reality for another. Adults rarely play. Occasionally they’ll “let themselves go” a bit at a Renaissance Fair, but “play” is definitely frowned upon. Most adults will acknowledge the entertainment factor of games, but that’s not the same thing. Games are a structured form of play: constructed situations with arbitrary rules that are very useful in training the mind to think in a certain way and follow a certain pattern. Games like Bejeweled, tic-tac-toe, and chess train the brain. Team sports train the mind and body.

But what I consider true play, or perhaps better called real play, doesn’t just cause your mind to channel grooves into the synapses of your brain, it causes your neurons to form exploratory forays into unknown and unused gray matter molecules, forging new highways and byways.

Real play don’t put you outside of the box, it enlarges the box to hold the universe: it basically removes the box completely. Which is not to say that there are no rules or consequences, but it is to say that you can see a thousand possibilities which are equally – or at least not exclusively – good, correct, optimum, or profitable. Children seem to be very good at this, which we (as adults) admire but certainly do not cultivate.

When you play, you also no longer see yourself as the only contributor to the solution. You can see that the merging of your synapse highways with someone else’s can create stronger and more dynamic solutions. And when things fall flat, you can still see opportunities for progress. You just turn around to the last fork in the road and change direction.

Improv – a form of play actually endorsed by adults – does what all games do and exercises your brain. It does what all sports do and exercises your mind and body together. But added to that, it’s a complete mind-body-heart workout that requires you to stretch not only your mind but your emotions. It trains to you to seize the possibility of a new reality, shared and created by people around you who want the reality to succeed and have its own transient validity.

What sounds like a bunch of hippy hogwash is in fact exercise in seeing true reality, in noticing the real and extant possibilities you couldn’t see before because you thought you were in – or maybe even outside of – the box.

Improv is a giant game of games that trains your brain in trust, communication, and creativity; all three of which are instrumental pillars in relationships. Perhaps someday I can go from an impassioned observer to a rank amateur, but even at my current level of comprehension I understand that play – real play – can help connect me to other people in stronger and better ways.

I am currently endorsing Improv because of my passionate belief that we desperately need to play. My enthusiasm and enjoyment for play comes from my experience of play that not only was fun, but always broadened my horizons of the possible. When you play, you put yourself in situations and through emotions you don’t normally face. It allows you to connect to other people in ways you never could before. Perhaps Improv is not for you – that’s okay! You should still find some way, somehow, to play.

Many people now are resolving to take better care of their bodies this year. I say, resolve to take care of your brain this year: play!

» Give play a chance. Improvise!

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