Play More

We all know theoretically that being playful is not only more fun, but can be useful. And yet we give ourselves so little freedom to explore and play with freedom and curiosity. I am often struck by the specific circumstances in which people do give themselves permission to play freely. My 10-month old nephew is prime example. As soon as people see him, they bend down, squeal, and join his games.


In some situations I am extremely playful. The first time that I entered a gymnastics gym at 18 years old I was overwhelmed that such a place existed – and that I could be allowed in! I remember running the distance of the gym, between trampoline, high bar and tumble track, marveling that all of this equipment existed in the world and that I could play on it.

But what gives us freedom to play under certain circumstances and not in others? Why, with my nephew, do strangers on the street allow themselves to say hello when otherwise they would look away? How did my enthusiasm in gymnastics make it possible to do the impossible?

The Body In Pain

When someone is in pain their brain literally shuts down. fMRI show that there is much less neural activity when the body is in physical or emotional pain. Pain therefore literally leaves less room for learning. Thus, one function of play is to expand neural activity, increasing the likelihood for new connections to be formed within the brain. 

The Humor Shortcut

If I’m uncomfortable I cannot be playful. Fortunately, the reverse also hold true: when I am playful I automatically become comfortable. Lat week I made my first I attempt at stand-up comedy. I joked about getting beat up in middle school. On stage the events were so exaggerated that the results were funny (at least to me!). The experience of talking about experiences that were at the time very challenging required a degree of mental flexibility that I found freeing. Creating a humorous situation out of a controversial one is just another way of stretching the brain and creating new connections.

Limitless Options

If play allows for a flexible approach to the study of anything, seriousness limits the ways in which we can explore. When we are stubborn or stuck there are literally fewer options available.


In addition to playfulness allowing for broader exploration, it creates the possibility for more active, enthusiastic engagement with the material presented. How come? Playfully presented material is more likely to be remembered. We remember experiences we enjoy.

Play Is Fun

Finally we have reached the simplest and most compelling reason of all: play is more fun. Simple as that. Who has a more enjoyable experience: the man who awkwardly averts his eyes or the woman who squats down to look my nephew in the eyes and make funny faces? I know which activity I enjoy more (and – of course – I have never awkwardly averted my eyes! Not ever…)

Where This Leaves Us

In the last few weeks I’ve been noticing where I am playful and where I’m not. By noticing trends I’ve begun to take the level of flexibility and enthusiasm I have in certain areas and transfer into others. Begin to notice where you are the most playful in your life. To begin, I suggest noticing where you are playful in your life, too.

Barefoot Running

I began my running career early, alternatively tagging along to and getting carried along to family running events.  I have fond memories of being the target of flying tortillas at many Bay to Breakers.  On my Dad’s shoulder before the start of the run I became known as “the Kid” and the running was entirely secondary to the preceding tortilla warfare.  My memories of the half and full marathons to which I was “encouraged” to attend are less fond.  Generally, my Dad ran the full, my mother and sister ran the half, and at 10 years old I keep up as best as I could.

My strength on the high school cross-country team was as a hill climber.  I was not at the top of the team, though I did run varsity though junior and senior years.  My best 3 mile race was at an average 5.30 minute/mile.  I disappointed my coaches and my parents when I walked off the team midway through the Fall of my senior year.  I left because I was bored with the limits of running.  I had had just about enough of “run faster.”

That ending was the beginning of a very exciting and eclectic movement education.  I studied fencing, rock-climbing, a couple of martial forms, a variety of dance forms, and numerous circus apparatus.  I have since performed in dance and in circus.

Years later, I’ve been drawn back to running.  Leaps on a ballet dance floor leave me anxious to get out and take up even more space leaping on mountain trails.  My answer to the ubiquitous smoking breaks outside every dance studio I’ve experienced is to go for a run.  The difference is how I think about running.  I still like moving fast and I’m still an endorphin junkie but I don’t run for the sake of running anymore.

I purchased my first pair of Vibram 5-finger 12 months ago after reading this article from the New York Times magazine.  I have always been an advocate of barefootedness.  Early in high school I studied abroad in Costa Rica and walked and ran barefoot after discovering that my performance running shoes offered no traction in the mud.

I had no trouble adapting to my new Vibram Five-Fingers probably because I’ve always enjoyed using my toes.  A traditional Anat Baniel Method/Feldenkrais Method exercise consists of gently interlacing toes with the fingers of the opposite hand.  (Go really slowly, don’t insert fingers in a way that causes pain!)  The mobility of my feet were dramatically altered as a result of an hour spend doing variations on this theme.  An interesting fact: young children often have the dexterity to interlace the toes of their feet just as we interlace our fingers.  It is something I aspire to.

The Vibrams were great for walking down San Francisco streets.  This was just before the shoes hit mainstream shops and I got into all sorts of interesting conversations with people who wondered what in the world I had on my feet.  The downside I’ve discovered to Vibram Five-Fingers is the same that I encounter with running shoes.  I still can’t feel the floor.  Especially during winter months when trails are wet and muddy there just isn’t enough sensation, my toes can’t dig it.  I still tend to take my Vibrams off halfway though a run and continue barefoot.

I’ve recently learned of a new shoe-less product that may enter the market.  Nike has come up with what they are calling “Foot stickers,” rubber/plastic patches that fit on parts of the bottom of the foot and act as second skin.  I haven’t (yet) managed to find a pair to try but I like the idea in principle.  There are a couple of varieties depending on activity: yoga, dance, cardio.  More samples and the article here.

I haven’t seen many shoe-less alternatives available.  A simple, though pessimistic, explanation: running shoe manufactures have a market cornered and don’t want to let it go.  There is more money in telling customers that a new shoe will solve the problem than in telling them to take off those shoes and walk/run barefoot.

My own shift away from regular shoes has resulted in an increase in my awareness of my feet throughout my daily life.  By increasing the demand on my nervous system during a run I feel as if I’m actually increasing the use of my feet throughout my life.

I attended Anat Baniel’s Move Into Life workshop in July 2009.  Michael Merzenich, PhD and noted neuroscientist was in attendance and gave a short talk.

To summarize Merzenich says that walking around barefoot increases demand on the brain, which in turn improves performance.  I have mulled his discussion over since July of 2009 and taken my running to a new, logical level in recent months.  I’ve found running barefoot on a university track to be painful and it isn’t always possible to find trails.  The city streets of San Francisco pose a threat to the barefoot runner.  I resort to running barefoot on a treadmill.  Now that I’ve thought of it, this seems completely logical.  Running shoes we built to keep our feet safe.  The gait-path of a treadmill doesn’t pose significant threat of rock or used needle; in other words we would be hard pressed to find a safer environment on which to run.  Thus far I haven’t been ordered off a treadmill as a result of my barefoot running. I do get strange looks.

Another new discovery resulting from my own barefoot exploration is related directions in research.  It turns out that Harvard has a lab dedicated to the topic of barefoot running.  (

This skeletal biology lab asks “how and why humans can and did run comfortably without modern shoes”.  They compare native peoples from various parts of the world who have never worn shoes with long-time barefoot runners and gym-going shoe-wearing runners.  The most informative piece of this website for me was that of children running in African whose feet seem to slap the ground.  The muscular tonus of their feet is pretty minimal and they seem very light and easy on their feet as they run.

Try an experiment: Choose your dominant hand. Bend your arm at the elbow, leaving the elbow on the ground.  Relax your wrist so your hand hangs limp.  Raise your hand and forearm like this six inches or a foot off the ground and let it fall.  Don’t throw it at the ground, just let it fall.  Do this several times.  After: do you notice a difference between your dominant hand, the one you let fall, and your non-dominant hand?  I’ve been trying to run using my feet like this.  Literally letting my feet falls towards the ground as I run.  It takes some practice but if the Harvard Skeletal lab is to be delivered, running barefoot requires on average 7% less energy than running in shoes, and is significantly less likely to cause long-term damage to the runner.

Something to consider…

On New Fitness, TED, and Practice

I spent the weekend at Anat Baniel’s “New Fitness” workshop. My new conceptualization of enthusiasm, vitality, and fitness: A baby learning to crawl.  I, for one, have never seen anyone in a gym look so eager nor move so well.

I just watched Aditi Shankardass discuss neurological diagnostic techniques for learning disorders on TED talks. This seven minute clip is worth seeing.

Finally, I’m continuing to enjoy the writings of Jonah Lehrer. Specifically, in September he summarized a paper about the importance of practice.  Here’s the link and here is the conclusion of the paper:

On a practical level, the present results suggest a means by which perceptual training regimens might be made markedly more efficient and less effortful. The current data indicate that it may be possible to reduce the effort required by participants by at least half, with no deleterious effect, simply by combining periods of task performance with periods of additional stimulus exposure. If this proves to be a general rule of nondeclarative learning, it could help to explain how potent instances of learning can arise when sensory stimulation is not always coupled with attention.

Jonah Lehrer on Neuroscience and Humanity

On Tuesday night I went to the Herbst theatre in San Francisco to hear neuro-scientist and writer Jonah Lehrer in conversation with Roy Eisenhardt.  While I grew up listening to City Arts and Lecturs, this was my first live discussion and a much needed return to academic discourse (not to be confused with discussion, debate, or dialogue).  As an alumnus of Columbia and Oxford Universities, Lehrer is now a contributor to Scientific American,  National Public Radio, and Wired Magazine, among others.  He has published articles in The New Yorker, Nature, Seed, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe and maintains the blog The Frontal Cortex.

Lehrer’s talk was especially interesting personally because of his combination of academic affiliations and real-world application.  As a scientific correspondent Lehrer straddles disciplines with which I myself struggle: the balance of academic research and real-world application.  Lehrer speaks and writes with the ease of a well-read academic.  In discussing one of his two books – Proust Was a Neuroscientist – Lehrer cited Plato to confirm his thesis that some fundamental ideas currently espoused by popular neuroscience were conceptualized by the Greeks.   (I grow bored with the use of the classics merely for the edification of ones argument though this trend is by no means exclusive to Lehrer.  In my opinion, references should be accessible to the audience to which they are cited.)  However, I heartily concur with Lehrer’s argument that the humanities use different methods to answer fundamentally human questions about thought, cognition, existence, humanity… .  What artist, writer, poet, dancer – who?! – does not seek to answer such questions through whatever medium their profession employs?
Jonah Lehrer’s most recent book, How We Decide, encompasses decision making throughout the development of research psychology all the way to recent publications in neuroscience.  I have a pretty thorough grounding in classic Behaviorism (B. F. Skinner, etc.) and Cognitive Psychology.   It was interesting, then, to hear studies with which I am very familiar (the classic example of Pavlov’s dogs trained to salivate at the sound of a bell which ques food) in the context of neuroscience.  Lehrer discussed Chimpanzees being fed squirts of apple juice and conditioned to respond to a bell just as Skinner’s dogs were, with the important difference that these Chimps were also undergoing brain scanners.  The brain scans showed anticipation of food as clearly as did Skinner’s dog’s saliva.  My cognitive psychology profession Dan Reisberg used to argue that neuroscience would not replace cognitive psychology but merely confirm what we (as cognitive psychologists) had already learned.  I saw echos of this throughout Lehrer’s discussion.

In all, I very much enjoyed Lehrer for his wit, humor, and melding of neuroscience with the news.  I am critical of academic’s trend to use lofty references to establish credibility but I see this everywhere that academics publish.  And truly, Plato had some interesting things to say.   I will be adding The Frontal Cortex to my blogroll and will certainly be posting about Lehrer in the future.

As an aside I am also amused by Lehrer’s public image:

This rumpled look is awfully reminiscent of the graduate students I know in the sciences at UCSF.

CNS (Central Nervous System is Sexy)

A couple of clarifying notes as relate to my most recent post on Neurons and Excitability…

Often, when one hears Central Nervous System the inclination is to think of the brain.  This is accurate but not a complete picture.  The CNS also includes a region of the spine down to about the waist line – the spinal cord.  It is important to note that the spinal cord does not extend the full length of the spinal column.

Sensory information may arrive at a wide variety of points along the spinal cord or reach the brain itself.  Information that is processed along the spinal cord without reaching the brain results in what we call reflexes.  This is why reflexive actions occur so quickly: they need not travel the length of the spine and into the brain.

Muscle Fibers and Nerve Excitability

I have spent a great deal of time dissecting cadavers this year.  This has been an amazing opportunity to learn in person about human anatomy and physiology and is deeply informative for my continuing work with clients seeking to overcome pain.  In examining these bodies, generously donated to UCSF/SFSU, I have spent a great deal of time isolating muscles as well as bony landmarks and nerve bundles.  A muscle cell, technically called a muscle fiber, is composed of interconnected proteins which contract and release.  The first part of my revelation was that each of these fibers is the full length of the muscle of which it is part.  This means that a fiber (remember, that means a muscle cell) which makes up a small part of the Rectus Femoris (the outermost of the quadriceps muscles, it runs from the pelvis down to the knee cap) also runs the full length from the pelvis to the knee.  My second breakthrough was in connecting this fact to a similar detail about nerve cells.  A nerve cell is called a neuron and the aspect of the cell responsible for transmitting electrical impulses from the body of the cell to the outputting ends is called the axon.   Note the axon of the neuron below, covered in a myelin sheath.


When I bump my toe everything happens so fast that it is nearly impossible to tell what is going on.  The sensory neurons in my toe send a signal to my spinal cord or my brain for processing, which then facilitates either a reflex or a processed reaction to the stimulus.  Perhaps, I withdraw my toe and cradle it in pain.  The signal, as it travels in both directions, is traveling from neuron to neuron or along the axon of many neurons, from extremity to the central nervous system (CNS, see following post for further discussion of this system) and back out again.  Some of the axons responsible for conducting the impulse to and from the toe are the length of the distance from toe to CNS!  Once the signal reaches the injured extremity it excites muscles fibers which contract (too late) to bring the toe out of harm’s way.  In these contractions, remember, fibers the length of the muscle are contracting.

Given two facts – that muscle fibers run the length of a muscle and that axons may run the distance between an extremity and the central nervous system – we can begin to understand why we can experience pain in parts of the body distant from a specific injury.  Neurons begin to respond when other neurons in their vicinity are excited.  Thus a wave of signals traveling away from the CNS may excite offshoots and facilitate muscle contraction in an area not directly impacted by the original stimulus.  As part of the healing process, this interconnectivity may be utilized by subtly adjusting areas peripheral to the site of injury.

I was recently working with a client, a professional dancer, who suffered injury to his ankle some years ago.  Since that time his career has been successful but he reports always having noticed less mobility at the site of injury.  He had seen physical therapists and massage practitioners about the issue with little or no success.  He reported that these practitioners had spent considerable time working directly on his foot and ankle and wondered aloud why I was dedicating so much attention elsewhere on his body.  But consider: if muscle fibers systematically run the length of a muscle and the axons of nerves may run from an extremity to the CNS, what impact might working elsewhere i.e. on the same leg have on the point of injury?  Muscle cells that directly connect to the area may be as far away as the knee.  Neurons that directly relate the the area may end as far as the upper spine or head.  Conceivably – just given these two facts – we could have worked on his head and seen results in his foot.  Certainly, my clients saw results!

That muscle fibers and neurons can be the lengths discussed should not be taken to completely explain interconnection throughout the body.  How neurons communicate is a very active field of research.  How axons come to be a certain length is not thoroughly understood.  Nor should the story of my client be an incentive to start poking at a friend’s head in hopes of provoking a response in her foot.  It probably will only serve to get you a good swift kick.  Of course, none of this changes the two tenants of the discussion.

Next time you stub your toe, consider: where did your responses originate?