What Might the Christian Tradition Learn From Neurobiology of Social Play?

Philip Miti
Sunday 24 July 2022
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion: Aquinas and Contemporary Neuroscience
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

The idea that play is like steam, escaping from the heat of labour is an old one, but the idea that play is dangerous has been attributed to the history of Christian thought. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) commented in The Descent of Man that play is pleasurable to young animals and that this reminds us of our own children. But play is not only an activity for children and animals. Rather, play seems to be integral to the well-being of humans and animals alike. Arguably, play has not often been seen in the Christian tradition as something necessary for life, and arguably since the reformation, where play has been valued, it has been defined or characterised in contradistinction to work/vocation (Johnston 1997). Robert K Johnston, Jürgen Moltmann, Ben Witherington III and other theologians put this down to the development of the pervasive Protestant work ethic (Witherington III 2012, 59; Johnston 1997, 15-18; Moltmann 1972, 8, 51). Nevertheless, there remains the suggestion that a certain suspicion towards the benefits of play has roots earlier in the Christian tradition labelling church fathers such as Tertullian, John Chrysostom in De Spectaculis & Commentary on Ephesians, Gregory of Nyssa’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes, Ambrose’s On the Duties of the Clergy Book 1 Chapter XXIII.103 & Book 2 Chapter V.16, and St Augustine’s Confessions Book III and Commentary on Psalm, as adverse to play and/or the pleasure of play (Power 1971; Shafer 2016; Teismann and Weber 2020). On the contrary, Thomas Aquinas did not object to play in his Summa Theologica.

Much of the history of Christian thought has understood play to be dangerous, as exemplified by John Chrysostom (347-407). However Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) considered play  in somewhat more neutral terms; that is, in terms of rest. The definition of play as rest is most commonly associated with Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805), who defined play as, “the aimless expenditure of exuberant energy” (Ellis 1973, 35). Put very simply, play is like blowing off steam when rest is needed. With roots in the ancient philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, this theory has found as much resonance in the 20th and 21st century as it has criticism (Mellou 1994). Although this view is not unique to Aquinas, his comments on play in the context of the Christian life are worth visiting. However, this puzzle suggests that such theories are lacking and current research in neurochemistry suggests that there is more going on in play that simply ‘rest’. This puzzle explores where recent neurobiological research might help Christian theology to shift from a model of ‘play as rest’ to something like ‘play as active development’. Furthermore, the concept of rest has been reconsidered in neurological terms where it has been understood to be the lowering of absence of activity whether mild or strenuous. This has logical implications for theories of play. Nevertheless, Aquinas’ discussion on play must not be overlooked because of his implicit recognition of  developmental aspects of play, most of which Aristotle was not ready to entertain.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Neuroscience

“Social play behaviour” has been observed widely among the majority of mammalian species, including humans and although it seems to be beneficial to health and development, it “does not appear to have an obvious direct function” (Vanderschuren, Achterberg, and Trezza 2016, 4).

One of the most significant limiting factors to play research in the neuroscience has been that play is difficult to define scientifically: “Indeed, identifying the components that make play playful, especially in animals or in contexts not already viewed as playful, can be challenging” (Burghardt and Graham 2010, 395). Regardless, the last three decades have seen more attention the neural mechanisms of “social play behaviour”. Most of this research has been done on rats by modulating the concentrations of neuro-chemicals in the brains of mammals, from which comparative extrapolations are made regarding play in humans.

Play behaviour seems to occur mostly among juvenile mammals

“Of course, horses play, especially young ones: the origins of the phrase ‘horsing around’ are not hard to fathom” – Gordon Burghardt, Biopsychologist, University of Tennesee

Play behaviour is not only observed in juveniles but is most prevalent in young mammals. Social play behaviour has also been observed in non-mammalian species such as birds and reptiles alongside mammals such as apes, dogs, cats, elephants, otters, bears and squirrels (Burghardt 2015, 1). Across the mammalian species, juveniles tend to exhibit the most play behaviour. In his The Psychobiology of Play, Jaak Panksepp put this down to a “strong intrinsic urge to frolic and compete with each other” (Panksepp, Siviy, and Normansell 1984). Precisely why juveniles play more is unclear in neuroscientific literature apart from the theories which imply a developmental instinct. Panksepp concludes his paper by positing that the young play “because (they) like to” (Panksepp, Siviy, and Normansell 1984, 489), suggesting that pleasure is an essential characteristic of play.

Play is pleasurable and rewarding for mammals

Social play behaviour is pleasurable and rewarding. Modulating transmission of opioids, cannabinoids, dopamine, and noradrenaline in the brain of rats confirms that play is pleasurable as well as beneficial to health and development (Trezza 2010). The socially rewarding aspect of social play in laboratory rats has been observed in conditioning experiments (Trezza, Campolongo, and Vanderschuren 2011). Typically, modulating the brain chemistry does not initiate play behaviour but may intensify it Marijke Achterberg and Louk Vanderschuren  et al. in 2016 showed for example that cannabinoids can modulate how social play is expressed in rats. They observed that the effects of social play were undoubtedly rewarding in rats such that on the basis of cannabinoid neurochemistry they were unable to tease the pleasurable and motivational aspects of social play apart from each other (Achterberg et al. 2016).

Play seems to be integral to development

Upon surveying play research on rats, neuroscientists Sergio Pellis and Vivien Pellis conclude that play is not merely prevalent behaviour or but crucial to psychological development (Pellis and Pellis 2009). One theory of the function of play under social bonding hypothesis posits that play reinforces existing social bonds. It promotes group cohesion and co-operation: Alongside, emotional, social, cognitive and motor skill development in mammals, it could reduce aggression within the group by providing a safe space or “non-ordinary space” for practice of such skills in ordinary situations (Siviy 2003; Palagi et al. 2019).

There is overwhelming consensus across psychological disciplines that play is necessary for development in human children. Many psychologists posit that play offers children flexible cognitive space to explore their interests, express emotions and process fear, disappointment, aggression, and sorrow (Burghardt and Graham 2010). Furthermore, play facilitates the physical and communication aspects of development such as social competence, resilience, creativity, and problem solving (Koeners and Francis 2020). Thus, children who due to severe illness face obstacles to play and play development also face potentially “impeding developmental milestones” (Nijhof 2018, 421).

There are detrimental consequences to play deprivation in mammals

There is evidence that play deprivation across mammals (including humans) has deleterious effects. This includes not only decline in mental health (response to stress, resilience), but studies show that rats incur impediments in social cognition (less mating, misidentification of material threat) (Hall 1998). Additionally, play-deprived animals are at risk of depression.

Based on rat studies, Panksepp believes that play deprivation is like sleep deprivation in that it is critically detrimental to human physiological, psychological and social functioning (Panksepp and Beatty 1980). Generalized to a broader scale argument, Psychologist Peter Gray argued that the recent decline of children’s free play US history has led to an increase in psychopathology in children and adolescents. Along with anxiety and depression, Gray links increased narcissism and a reduced sense of personal control with a lack of play (Gray 2011, 447-452).

2.2 Play in the Christian Tradition

Early church father, John Chrysostom (347-407) is frequently cited as having a disparaging of play because of the strong words in his homilies about the danger of thoughtless mirth. In his commentary on Matthew 11:3, both the child and the devil are associated with play: “And what can be more childish than this mind (which seeks only play all the time)? For it is not God that grants to play but the devil” (Chrysostom 1843, 89).  Likewise, Tertullian (155-220) is often cast in a similar light for his discussion on how Christians should approach theatre and the games in his De Spectaculis XXIII. “Let the heathen, the subjects of the devil, enjoy themselves now, our turn will come late” (Tertullian 2006). He reserved blanket condemnation of those who facilitated many kinds of play and those who partook in it. In De Spectaculis this judgement rests on, “charioteers, players, athletes, gladiators, and actors” (Power 1971, 40). The attitudes of Tertullian and Chrysostom seem to have left a lasting sense that the Christian tradition is suspicious of play but this suspicion is not the only option. Christian theologians in medieval Europe such as Hugh of St Victor and Thomas Aquinas were able to reflect on play in contexts, which spared them the pressure of being a persecuted minority. 

Commenting frequently upon Chrysostom’s concerns, medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) viewed play as essential human activity. Aquinas defines play in the Summa Theologica ST I-II.1.6 ad 1 (Sevier 2015, 73).

“Actions done playfully* (actiones ludicrae*) are not directed to any external end; but merely to the good of the player* (ad bonum ipsius ludentis*), in so far as they afford one pleasure (delectantes) or relaxation (requiem).”

There are two important points to be made here. Starting with the secondary point, for Aquinas, the effect of play is rest from the labours of the virtuous human living. This affords one pleasure and/or relaxation: “ just as the body needs rest from its labour, on account of its finite nature, so the soul also needs occasional rest from its labour, since the works of reason, no less than the works of the body, are wearisome to man” (Sevier 2015, 74).

The primary feature of play is that it is not directed towards any external end. Its end is its own fulfilment. This means that cannot be utilised instrumentally to achieve some other specified goal without becoming a different task altogether. For Aristotle, there can be no virtue in playing (ludos) because virtue requires that one’s action is directed at something else. But playful actions are not directed externally. It is here that Aquinas departs from Aristotle. Aquinas suggests on the contrary that the soul’s rest is part of the virtuous life. Play is rest for the soul in which, “the soul seeks no further end than its own delight.” And in addition to this, according to  Aquinas, play has no other end than the good of the playing subject which is always tethered to its final end (happiness). This means that play is important in the virtuous life and it is therefore an intrinsic good. Furthermore, Aquinas concluded that “(play) ludus est necessarius ad conversationem humanae vitae” ST II-II.168.3 ad 3. Play “is necessary for the intercourse of human life itself”.

3. Discussion: Aquinas and Contemporary Neuroscience

“Actions done playfully* (actiones ludicrae*) are not directed to any external end; but merely to the good of the player* (ad bonum ipsius ludentis*), in so far as they afford one pleasure (delectantes) or relaxation (requiem).” Thomas Aquinas –  ST I-II.1.6 ad 1,

Play is notoriously difficult to define. Instead of striving for one conceptual definition, most theorists and scientists are forced to treat play as a phenomenon baring observable characteristics. However, this is not without its difficulties: “Indeed, identifying the components that make play playful, especially in animals or in contexts not already viewed as playful, can be challenging.” (Burghardt and Graham 2010, 395). Additionally, the neuroscience research methodology referred to in this puzzle is burdened with the task of “disentangling” the neurochemical systems involved in any particular phenomenon or event. (Siviy and Panksepp 2011, 1825)

Nevertheless, neuroscientists such as Siviy and Panksepp assert that the complexity of the brain structure and anatomy does not have to stop the research task. In favour of increased complexity and nuance in play research some scientists have asked the question, for “those interested in developing a scientific understanding of play, is it really necessary to have some common understanding across communities of what is involved in play?” (Burghardt 2011, 11). Gordon Burghardt goes on to ask whether a generic conception of play might suffice for interdisciplinary play discourse and whether certain consistent criteria might provide helpful guiderails for identifying play (Burghardt 2011, 12-16). Of his five criteria, three are in direct accordance with Aquinas’ criteria of play.

  • “The first criterion of recognising play is that the performance of the behaviour is not fully functional in the form or content in which it is expressed” (Burghardt 2011, 13)
  • “The second criterion for recognising play is that the behaviour is spontaneous, voluntary, intentional, pleasurable, rewarding, reinforcing or autotelic (‘done for its own sake’)” (Burghardt 2011, 14)
  • “The fifth criterion for recognising play is that the behaviour is initiated when an animal is (…) in a relaxed field” (Burghardt 2011, 16)

Play is necessary for life

Aquinas’ assertion that play is necessary for human life might be easily misread if understood too individualistically. In Aquinas, play is indeed an “intrinsic good of both body and soul,” but it also necessary to human life meant collectively: ludus est necessarius ad conversationem humanae vitae. The implication is that the stressors and seriousness of life are dissipated within and between humans when they play. Aquinas’ virtue theory prevents him from reflection on what play might look like in non-human animals. Intellectual souls (humans) are those that need play more because of the intellective and contemplative fatigue of the soul. Contrary to Aquinas but similarly to humans, neuroscientific work on rats has also revealed the deleterious effects of play deprivation on the psychic and social function of rats. Aquinas’ reasoning is that only well-ordered play affords recreation (subject to rational souls). But according to Aquinas, animals do not have the right for the virtue temperance in play. Thus, the neurosciences posit the question to Aquinas why play seems to be necessary to rat life too. 

The idea that non-human animals play is familiar in the Hebrew Bible but it has not often been considered with importance by Christian theologians. God’s address to Job 40 insinuates the play of all the wild beasts (v20) before the behemoth (perhaps a Hippopotamus). In Psalm 104: 26, the Leviathan in all its terrifying might was formed (יָצַרְתָּ) to play in the sea. Even this creature is but a “plaything.” before the creative power of God (Habel 1985, 568). Prof. Clough’s systematic theology On Animals draws attention to the often, ignored cognitive faculties and vocations of non-human animals in scripture and the Christian tradition. (Clough 2012, 40-44). He has also given much reason for a reassessment of passages which have been interpreted ‘merely’ as metaphor or poetry where scripture bespeaks some form of realism. Scripturally, play seems to bare importance in creaturely life, not just human life.

Play as pleasure and rest

Aquinas shares with several neuroscientists the view that play is not directed towards an external goal (Pellis and Pellis 2009; Vanderschuren, Achterberg, and Trezza 2016, 4; Burghardt 2011, 14; E. Palagi 2011). Although play behaviour has many health benefits, these seem to be indirect products of play rather than intentional aims in most cases. Play is in this sense something which happens for its own sake and of its own accord. It is nevertheless possible to neurochemically modulate the intensity of existing play behaviour between rats through the opioid and dopaminergic systems (Trezza and Vanderschuren 2008; Deak und Panksepp 2006). These systems are also implicated in the experience of pleasure and reward in both rats and humans.

The association between pleasure and play is also noted by Aquinas who posits that play affords one rest. Most experimental neurochemical studies on rats conclude that play facilitates rest or relaxation. Rest has often been measured in terms of stress reduction indicated by reduced cortisol and adrenaline levels. However, this might be a misleading measure because playful activity might also coincide with mild forms of stress: “in some situations, play has been shown to reduce stress. Thus, while severe stress may dampen play, mild to moderate levels of stress may actually facilitate its occurrence” (Pellis and Pellis 2017, 2). Thus, in brain chemistry studies, Aquinas’ theory about rest as a part of play are not dealt with sufficiently. Nevertheless, in other neuroscientific frontiers in cognitive neuroscience for example, wakeful rest has been observed in the contexts of gaming and music with the aim of assessing executive functions such as working memory and attention (Kuschpel and Rapp 2015). Such research suggests that play can stimulate attentive and memory faculties in ways which boost learning and complex reasoning. (Hedges, Adolph, and Ghajar 2013). Furthermore, neuroscientists who factor in observations of neural networks have different measures for approximating the brain at rest. This potentially challenges Aquinas’ hypotheses that the soul’s labour in reasoning is alleviated by play. Much neuroscientific work suggests that play affords more to the player than just pleasure and rest. Typically, baseline activity in a range of specific neural circuits mark what has been called “resting state”. This coincides with the mental rest of a kind often sought after by practitioners of mindfulness, ‘spiritual relaxation’ or where an experiment participant “is instructed to simply rest and let their mind wander for several minutes”. The default mode network (DMN) for example, is engaged when the brain is not absorbed in a  task. Taking heed of the fast-changing development of the young brain  (Camacho, Quiñones-Camacho, and Perlman 2020) published a fascinating paper addressing the lack of attention awarded to resting cognition in early childhood. They highlighted neurobiological evidence that children do not rest like adults do. They also posited that the research assumptions that children dip to a lower order of cognition when the rest or play and then to a higher one when they learn, reason and think is simply unfounded. They write, “We raise the possibility that rest—and subsequently resting state or resting baseline measurement—is not indicative of simply a disengagement of outward activity or engagement of inward thought, as is often assumed, but instead represents an engaged cognitive state driven by developmental demand” (Camacho, Quiñones-Camacho, and Perlman 2020, 4). One of the neuroanatomical features which might make rest, and thus presumably play, different between adults and children is spontaneous activity: “A long line of research has reliably found that spontaneous activity is not only a main driver of neuronal development but is necessary for development” (Camacho, Quiñones-Camacho, and Perlman 2020, 3).

Thus, play not only coincides with increased neural and physical activity, but it might also in some contexts demand it. Also, one must consider that play looks neurobiologically different in adults and developing children. 

Play in the context of development

Although both Tertullian and Chrysostom have been cited in recent publications railing against the evils of play, it cannot be ignored that they were both concerned specifically with the relation of worldly pleasure and idolatry and thus might not have thought play itself to be a concern. Commenting on Chrysostom’s concerns, Aquinas  identifies that is the immoderate use and measure given to play which is suspect (ST I-II.34.1 ad 2). Thus, when Chrysostom remarks that play belongs to “children and dumb animals” he must be referring to their incapabilities rather than moral failures. Children are not yet good at seeking moderation in their playing and thus not all occurrences of play are good according to Aquinas. It is not easy to keep moderation in play especially in the cases of youth and addiction, but moderation is essential if play is to be true recreation. This is expanded upon both in the Summa Theologica ST II-II.168.3 and ST II-II.168.4 and in his Commentary on Lombard’s Sentences in II Sent. d.4 q.1 a.5 c. in which both excess play and too little play are deemed improper and at times sinful. The virtue of eutrepelia – often translated as ‘ready wit’ is the virtue by which one indulges and desires to play in moderation. It is from  Aristotle that Aquinas inherits the concept of eutrapelia and the centrality of moderation to the virtuous life.

4. Conclusion

Christian theology might yet pay more attention to the developmental aspect of play. Rather than considering play  in negative terms ‘where work stops’, play appears to be a context in which humans (and rats) develop crucial cognitive, psychological, and social skills. This includes, social competence, resilience, creativity, and problem solving among many other facets necessary not only for the intercourse of life, but also for the Christian life.


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Cite this article

Miti, Philip. 2022. What Might the Christian Tradition Learn From Neurobiology of Social Play?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 12). https://www.theo-puzzles.ac.uk/2022/07/24/miti/

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Philip Miti
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