2012 Conference on Neuroesthetics

The Importance of Being Playful

‘It is human to have a long childhood’, the psychiatrist Erik Erikson (1902-94) wrote, ‘it is civilized to have an even longer childhood.’

We humans distinguish ourselves as neotenous – we preserve juvenile characteristics into our adulthood and retain a lifelong capacity for engaging in play, a trait we do not even share with chimpanzees. Yet for many decades, the only research conducted on play behavior was in relation to animals and children, and adults are rarely understood in terms of play, regarded instead as poets, musicians, dancers, comedians, inventors, athletes, explorers or entrepreneurs.

Play behavior is not only the origin of our cultural ingenuity, but is intimately linked to the shape and function of that most ingenious feature of our biology, our brain. According to the social brain hypothesis, our large human brains have evolved to deal with the increasing complexity that characterizes the social life of primates. It is not only our ability to maintain different relationships with large numbers of people that makes unprecedented cognitive demands, but the sophisticated forms of play behavior that facilitate such bonds – ritual, dancing, singing and laughter. Neuroscientists have begun to unravel how play affects brain maturation, social competency, impulse control and stress reduction, how it engenders positive emotions by stimulating endorphins and dopamine, the role of mirror neurons in collective enactments of joy, or the effect of rough-and-tumble play in increasing dentrital arborization in the orbito-frontal cortex, which is involved with cooperation and social competency.

We aim to highlight the importance of play as a fundamental expression of humanity, chart its ontological significance and stake out the role of play in the 21st century, while indulging in some play ourselves!

The Playful Brain
How does play shape the brain and how does the brain shape play?
How does play affect our neuronal anatomy and what neuronal circuitry is involved?
What is the relationship between play, aesthetics and creative cognition?
Is the rise of mental illness in Western society a symptom of chronic play deprivation?

Play in Society
How and why have attitudes towards play differed historically and geographically?
Can play be measured? Is play a state-of-mind?
What is the relationship between religion and play?
What is the relationship between play, ethics and moral cognition?
What environments are conducive to play?
What are play’s trade-offs and negative effects?

Play and the Future of Humanity
How can we harness the creative power of play to develop solutions for the problems we face in the 21st century?
Are political correctness, health and safety obsession, and surveillance technologies poisoning play?
Does Western society pathologize play?
Can the functions of real-life play be remediated in cyberspace?
Is there a role for humor in political conflict resolution?

The Tenth International Conference on Neuroesthetics
May 26-27th, 2012

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