Ditta Oliker

Ditta M. Oliker Ph.D.

The Long Reach of Childhood


Let’s Play: How the Science of the Brain Is Changing Therapy

The increasing importance of play, creativity and spontaneity

Posted Apr 10, 2015

peter zelei/Getty Images
Source: peter zelei/Getty Images

Part One

I recently attended a three-day conference at UCLA entitled: Play, Creativity, Mindfulness and Neuroscience in Psychotherapy. The language of the conference’s brochure offered an approach that has been gaining increasing importance, namely that: “Throughout the lifespan, play supports neurological growth and development while building complex, skilled, flexible, responsive and socially adept brains.” 

Sitting in the audience that first day of a formal academic conference, I experienced, for the first time since I had become a psychologist, the merging of my two professional lives—psychology and theater.  The years before I had become a therapist were ones devoted to working in the theater as a producer at the Mark Taper Forum, an award-winning theater at The Music Center in Los Angeles.  My title, Director of Special Programs; my focus, the development of innovative, educational programs for young people; one of the most successful programs, The Improvisational Theater Project (ITP).  The focus of ITP was improvisational “play” and how it could be used to inform, educate and inspire its young audience.

Although well before it was known how “play” affects us neurologically, play has long been an important tool for the innovative therapist.  As the conference continued so much of the research presented connected, in my mind, to the writings and ideas of Viola Spolin, author of the 1983 book Improvisation for the Theater Third Edition and founder of Theater Games. It was Spolin’s ideas regarding improvisation that formed the ITP.  It was my involvement with improvisational techniques and games that informed my work as a therapist.  But first, some of the key points presented at the conference.

For many years the prevailing view of the brain/body connection was that there was little or none.  One of the more dramatic findings of the results of neuroscience research is of an ongoing active interaction between the two—the brain affecting the body and the body affecting the brain.  With a new understanding of how emotions can affect the body, aspects of positive feelings such as play, feeling good, enjoyment, and laughter are now seen and validated as important elements of physical and psychological health requiring continuing support.

One reason play was not taken seriously was its assumed unimportance in evolutionary theory since it did not appear to play a significant role in survival.  A negative emotion such as fear clearly ties to actions a living creature would respond to by seeking safety. The facial look of fear and the responding changes in the physiology of the creature would then be available to be observed and studied by science.  Because positive emotions are much more subtle and lack the specificity of negative emotions, they tended to be seen as far less relevant to survival needs. That has changed as the increased understanding of the brain’s functions extends to play and positive emotions and their role in building skills for adaptation and survival.  These include but are not limited to: allowing for ongoing attachment, crucial for infant and child development and survival; forming strong bonds between two or more individuals including those bonds that foster new generations; and relationships that offer feelings of mutual safety, togetherness and community. There is also growing evidence that positive emotions can help heal the damage of negative emotions and trauma.  Imagining behavior and/or an action helps the subsequent performance. In my mind’s eye I can still see, from a television filming of an Olympic game, the eyes of a high jumper follow the arc of a successful jump in preparation to actually jumping.

The research results presented at the conference offered considerable evidence that the lack of free play has a strong, negative effect on individuals of all ages. Questions raised by these findings focus on the increasing lack of free play in our current world and its subsequent effect on individuals, groups and society.

Now, on to how improvisation and theater can play a part in understanding and reinforcing psychology’s new interest in play, creativity and mindfulness.  First, three definitions: mindfulness is seen as the state of being attentive to and aware of what is happening in the present moment; to improvise is to extemporaneously invent, compose or perform with little or no preparation; improvisation is to create something new in the moment to moment interactions between two or more participants.

Let’s start with improvisation and how my earlier experience in theater merged with my therapeutic training.  The Improvisational Theater Project grew out of the Taper’s presentation of Paul Sill’s Story Theater, an award winning production based on fairy tales and the use of the improvisational theater techniques adapted from Viola Spolin.  Spolin, mother of Paul Sills, was a respected and honored teacher of improvisation and the creator of Theater Games.  Spolin believed that: “Spontaneity is the moment of personal freedom when we are faced with a reality and see it, explore it and act accordingly…It is the time of discovery, of experiencing, of creative expression…Do not think of present as clock time but rather as a timeless moment, when all are mutually engaged in experiencing and experience, the outcome of which is as yet unknown.  You’re right there; you’re connected and you don’t know what’s going to happen, and that’s where the spontaneity is…”Viola Spolin (Improvisations for the Theater)

Spontaneity was at the core of a magic moment consistently created by the ITP Company.  The actors would walk into a high school auditorium filled with students and their teachers.  The members of the company would wave, express their pleasure at being there, start a bit of improv banter and then, suddenly a fairly large beach ball would magically appear in an actor’s hands.  There would be a moment of silence—the ball would be tossed into the audience—the room would explode with sounds of excitement—a look of horror on some of the teacher’s faces—a signal by the actor to return the ball—the ball returned to the actor.  The ball was sent two more times, each time now to a specific student—signaled it be returned—and the student would oblige.  Suddenly the physical ball would disappear and an actor stood holding an invisible ball. Stillness invaded the hall, the actor signaled his intention to throw the ball to the student—would throw the imaginary ball—the student would catch it—wait a moment or two and then proudly throw it back to the actor, a magic moment.  Awakening the imagination of the students allowed for the freedom to take them to new places, new ideas and new realities.

I believe my experience with improvisation allowed me the freedom to join my patients on a journey allowing both of us to not only discover new ideas and realities but also to uncover key moments in one’s past that continue to affect how one experiences reality. For example, when there is an issue of control and/or being controlled by another, I might use one kind of a game with an adolescent and another approach with an adult. 

When working with a young person stuck in an oppositional interaction with a parent, I suggest we play “the right arm/left arm power game.”  I play the “right arm” - the parent, and the adolescent Tim plays himself - “the left arm”.  We start the game by extending both arms out to the side.  Right arm says “up”. Left arm goes down.  Right arm says “in”.  Left arm stays out. Right arm says “down”.  Left arm goes up.  This continues for several minutes and then I ask: “Which arm is in control?” No words can match the look on Tim’s face when he gets the meaning of the game, for as long as the left arm only acts in opposition to the commands of the right arm it is still caught in a controlling situation.  At that moment Tim is so much closer to intellectually and emotionally freeing himself by understanding the importance of evaluating the reasons for a movement and thus experiencing true choice.

Some individuals aren’t struggling with being controlled by another but rather controlled by a distorted understanding of what it means to be “responsible”.  A friend of mine once made a remark that captures the essence of this distortion. “I used to think,” she said, “that I was so mature.  Until I realized that I was only serious.”  Children who are given adult responsibilities prematurely often fall into this trap.  They are usually in situations where the adults are unable and/or unwilling to appropriately handle responsibilities and require the child to become, what I call, a “pseudo-adult child”. These are children who assume adult responsibilities but - still thinking in the concrete and egocentric ways of the child ¾ get caught in distorted beliefs of what it means to assume adult responsibilities. The feel of an adult still caught in the power of their inner pseudo-adult child is one of heaviness, tension, of being burdened.  It often starts with a parent’s request that the child is “expected to help”—which turns into “needed to take on more responsibilities”—which in turn becomes “these are totally your responsibilities”—which ends in the message that “these responsibilities take precedence over all other minor things you do.”  Fun, enjoyment, games and the freedom to play all become “minor things to do.”

When working with adults controlled by their inner pseudo-adult child, the focus is on:

1.  Helping them learn the difference between the concrete thinking of a child and the reasoning of an adult.  Take the issue of time.  For an adult, the designated time of a meeting has some flexibility given the vagaries of traffic, etc.  The responsible adult would leave enough time to be on time, but not be devastated if he/she were a few minutes late.  The pseudo-adult child, thinking in absolutes, would feel that it was his or her responsibility to be at the meeting at the exact designated time or even earlier—with no excuses for lateness accepted.  I will set up a “dress rehearsal” by asking a patient to come to his or her next session several minutes late to practice how to apologize without the angst of having done an irreparable action.

2.  Helping them understand that, as children, they had been expected to be inappropriately responsible for themselves as well as for others—that prematurely assuming responsibilities of adulthood turns “maturity” into “seriousness” increasing the chance that adulthood feels like a burden.  The “game” would be to define what is the true message embedded in the request of another—“to help out” or “to assume full and total responsibility”.

3.  Encouraging them to become involved in activities that allow for greater flexibility and enjoyment.  I will often suggest to patients who have been caught in systems that have restricted their play that they become involved in activities that they might like but never participated in.  There are no age restrictions on such sports as baseball, tennis, swimming, and volleyball, nor limiting restrictions in activities such as dancing, fencing, acting, improvisational games, joining a chorus, learning a musical instrument or any other experience that offers opportunities for much needed breaks from the responsibilities these people have assumed.

Giving them permission to give themselves the freedom to play, a freedom that was denied them in their childhoods.

Sharing my experience of the conference, Play, Creativity, Mindfulness and Neuroscience in Psychotherapy will continue in Part Two and Part Three which will cover such subjects as: intuition as expressed by Viola Spolin and studied by neuroscience; differences between right brain and left brain knowing and how each play a part in creativity; the concept of “the space between” in theater and in therapy; the effects of deprivation and/or loss of free play, and more examples of how the knowledge and use of improvisation and theater can enhance the process of therapy.

This blog will continue to expand on The Long Reach of Childhood: How Early Experiences Shape You Forever including strategies that can play an important part in the process of breaking free.  I hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey, and hope spontaneity and play become a more important part of your life.