“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing”, George Bernard Shaw
Lately I have been reading about play and how important it is to adult life, and not just for children. Dr. Stuart Brown, a leading expert on play and the brain says that humour, games,roughhousing, flirtation and fantasy make us happy, smart adults and even make us smarter at any age. He points out that play fires up the cerebellum and a life without it leads to depression. Not only does play have a biological place in our bodies as shown by an fMRI, but it enhances intelligence. Dr. Brown is a pioneer in play research and is somewhat unique in this field of play and the adult.
According to Dr. Brown play involves curiosity, exploration, social play, rough and tumble play, spectator play, imaginative play (solo) and internal play (story). At this point the reader might begin to wonder how this blog is related to fibromyalgia. In my view those of us with chronic pain often find little time to focus on lightheartedness and instead spend much of our time on our bodies that seem to have forsaken us. Joy is often absent in our lives and depression is always ready to take over. While we have many internal stories we tell ourselves, they are not usually happy ones. The very old song by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer gave us good advice: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive Eliminate the negative And latch on to the affirmative Don’t mess with Mister-In-Between”. Many of us have latched on to the negative. It seems that because play is not an active component of our lives the brain becomes stuck in negativity.
Several blogs ago I wrote about the quilts I had made for family members. There were 17 of them! Taking up quilting in later life was a challenge for me since I am not a person who knows how to sew. Not even owning a sewing machine, I made half the quilts by hand. Reading the book by Dr. Frank Wilson, famous neurologist who wrote about the hands, and how he took up piano playing as an adult, I have begun to understand the impact of using my hands for something somewhat creative and that has had an interesting and positive effect on me. It was a form of imaginative play, certainly solo, as I designed themes for these quilts (confession: my husband, a Ph.D in Math contributed to the designing and measurements, which helped with the fun aspect. There was much laughter involved). It involved curiosity and exploration, repetitive action and was a type of play that was new to me, (while somewhat challenging!). Family members laughed at the idea of me as a quilter. At the same time that I was sewing I listened to music. It felt like play and I thrilled at going into fabric stores feeling the material. This was a new adventure for me, never having been in a fabric store in my entire life! Dr. Wilson says that 80-90% of brain motor capacities is in the hands, mouth and throat. The control of all these areas uses all of our brains. I had many struggles, in particular with my hands which often ached, but as is the purpose this kind of play it helped with problem solving. The fabric became soothing to touch, wash and sew. My hands became more interesting to me, even though awkward with learning a new skill. My flare-ups have decreased, not dramatically, but slowly. I can’t say for certain that this is due to quilting, but that is definitely an integral component of the whole picture. I don’t want to belabour the idea of changing our fibromyalgia brains and neuroplasticity since I have written about these issues in other blogs so often, but there is no other hope for those of us suffering from this condition. Play, laughter, joyful endeavours…these are the secret strategies for overcoming much of the daily pain and fatigue. Why aren’t the neuroscientists using our brains for those fMRIs, I constantly wonder?
While I have written extensively about neuroplasticity, I now find myself inundated with reading material as it crops up everywhere I turn. In our local paper the writer Harry Bruce is happy to know that at 76 he is “still a glorious work of nature”. He writes: In my mid-70s now, I can’t escape warnings about the future of my brain. Apparently, I must use it or lose it”, (p.D16, Sunday, February 13, 2001, The Nova Scotian , The Chronicle Herald). I would like to know what he does for play. I did find out what the guru of highly sensitive persons does for play. Elaine Aron and her husband Arthur Aron, a scientist, are quoted in our national paper The Globe and Mail, February 14, 2011: Elaine: “I’m highly sensitive. I find that Art gets me to go out and do things I might think are too overstimulating, like experimental theatre or hear some obscure chamber music. I pull him into quiet time, like meditation and being in nature. We go on a lot of hikes but try to go to a new place each time. Arthur: You have to be careful, because excitement is good, up to the point where it is stressful”. While I don’t think Elaine Aron has fibromyalgia the reader will know that a highly sensitive person is part of the theoretical construct of fibromyalgia that I have written about in my book and blogs. Too much excitement in a HSP with fibromyalgia is ‘overplay’ and not conducive to positive brain pathways. So it is important to strike a balance between what kind of play, how much and how often. But even more importantly if learning a new skill is good for the brain, but is frustrating and too challenging, it ceases to become play. Ah! A fine line. Maybe…social play is a better answer for those of us battling pain on a regular basis. For me, weekly ‘play dates’ with my women friends encompasses laughter and invigorates my psyche. I don’t want to learn a new language or practice endlessly to rediscover playing the piano like Robin Roger has done (See The Globe and Mail, L8, Tuesday February 15, 2011 Boot camp for the brain)! Play, not work, is what I crave! It is doing quiet, meditative activities alone or with those I love, filled with joyful, fun times that will quiet that demon (FM) within. This is how I define play…silly, humourous, laughing, meditative and fun…but not stressful. We have to accentuate the positive.