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?


Isabel Behncke
Oxford University
Title of Talk: 'Adaptive Joker Hypothesis'

Professor Marc Bekoff
Emeritus Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado
Title of Talk: 'Animals at Play: Why Joy and Fairness are the Names of the Game'

Shakti Belway
Human rights lawyer
Title of Talk: 'Play as a Social and Political Catalyst'

Professor Margaret Boden
Research Professor of Cognitive Science,
University of Sussex
Title of Talk: 'Play, Art and Creativity'

Baba Brinkman
Rapper and Playwright
Title of Talk: 'Wordplay: From Chaucer to Darwin to Dr. Dre'

Dr Stuart Brown
Director of the National Institute for Play
Title of Talk: 'From Play to Innovation: Play as a Long-Term Survival Necessity'

Dr Scott Eberle
Vice-President for Play Studies, The Strong
Editor, The American Journal of Play
Title of Talk: 'Playing with Multiple Intelligences'

Christopher Hobbs
Bafta-nominated Production Designer
Title of Talk: 'The Playful Eye'

Jeff Hull
Founding Director of the Jejeune Institute

Professor Nicholas Keynes Humphrey
Emeritus Professor of Psychology,
London School of Economics
Title of Talk: 'Dreaming as Play'

Dr Beau Lotto
Reader in Neuroscience
Director of LottoLab, University College London
Title of Talk: 'Seeing the Light'

Dr Mark Moffett
National Museum of Natural History
Title of Talk: 'Ants as Complex Beings: Seriousness and Play Among the Insects'

Professor Anthony Pellegrini
Professor of Educational Psychology,
University of Minnesota
Title of Talk: Object Use in Childhood: Development and Possible Functions

Professor Sergio Pellis
Professor of Neuroscience,
University of Lethbridge
Title of Talk: A Playful Brain Makes for a More Adaptable Brain

Dr Phillip Prager
Lecturer – Designing Digital Play,
IT University of Copenhagen
Research Associate, Minerva Foundation
Title of Talk: 'Play and the Avant-Garde: Aren’t We All a Little Dada?'