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Rats Giggle, The Importance of Play, and a Night at the Rubin

Here’s how I define “interesting”: an experience that leads me to ask (and seek to answer) compelling questions; causes me to plan follow-up experiences that would have never occurred to me otherwise; and (at least slightly) alters the course of my intellectual, creative or physical life.

So, last Friday night was interesting.  I went to the Rubin Museum of Art, which is for the seventh time, hosting Brainwave. This is a series of staged conversations, films and other events, all focused on answering this question: what happens in our brains when we attempt to overcome adversity, survive tests of endurance and stay focused under pressure?

The conversation I attended was between the highly acclaimed ballet dancer, Wendy Whelan, and Mark Solms, neuropsychologist and South African vintner. Although my guess is that most people in the sold-out crowd were familiar with Whelan or Solms or both, I wasn’t. Maybe you’re not either, so here’s a video of Whelan’s dancing, and a TEDx talk by Solms.

Their conversation was exactly the kind I like to have, jumping around from one topic to the next, making me want to know more.  Here’s some of what stood out:

Injuries as a learning experience.  Whelan referred almost immediately to a physical injury she was recovering from. She never specified what it was, and no one in the audience asked during the q&a —  but she said that she’s found the injured times in her life among the most rich and valuable.

This is a topic I’ve been dwelling on, of late —  the value of adversity, which, let’s face it, is a totally annoying fact of life. I’d much rather skip the hard stuff, but there’s no doubt that it’s all been valuable in the bigger picture.  As an example, she  mentioned that she decided to get married during a time of injury, which came up in the couple’s Vows profile.

She said she never harbored the desire to marry until an injury last year kept her home for four months, where {husband-to-be} Mr. Michalek tended to her. The leave forced her to be “a wife in a weird way,” she said. “I really enjoyed it, so I just knew I could be myself and not be a dancer with this person. I could look ahead into the future, and I was just so happy being me with him.”

Rats giggle.  This came up during a conversation about the nature of play, which Whelan and Solms concluded was essential to creativity. I don’t recall that either quoted Picasso, as is clearly required by law on this topic: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

But the conversation went along those lines — that children have the belief that they’re special, and what they learn and how they express that is important — which is a form of healthy narcissism.

This gets beaten out of most people as they age, so, as Solms observed, “we all start like narcissists, and end up like Englishman — except for artists.” Artists retain that childlike state. (Childlike, as distinguished from the pejorative childish.)

Whelan remembered her introduction to dance as a child, and spinning and spinning around and around, simply because she loved to do it. And how she retains that love of movement today, after more than forty years of dancing.

This quality of love is in fact is how she separates artists from the workaday artist. “Doing it because it feels so fucking good, versus for money or reviews,” she says.

This was also on my mind, as I was in the home stretch on my recent essay Against Self-Discipline.  We do tend to overlook the fun of creativity, especially when we do this creative thing for a living.

This led into a learned riff on play from Solms, which included the observation that all juvenile mammals have an instinct for play, in fact, they must play. (Even rats, which laugh when you tickle them: diagram, if you’re not keen enough on rats to watch the video.)

Solms also pointed out that play is often rough and tumble, with a switch-off between dominant and submissive roles.  (And he said, I believe, that you have to be dominant no less than 40% of the time for that play experience to be fun for you.)

Also, play is a way of testing boundaries, and sometimes the line gets crossed between being playful (say, playing doctor) and unwanted touching (really playing doctor.) Which is why all children will tell you they love playing, and why most episodes of play end in tears.

I’m not so interested in children, frankly. (Heresy, I know! But do remember I have a proudly unused uterus.) However I am interested in how teasing works in adult communication, which to my mind is precisely about saying uncomfortable things and pushing boundaries.

I’ve now added these items to my upcoming agenda: seeing Whelan perform Restless Creatures at The Joyce this Spring, reading Solms’ book Brain and the Inner World: An Introduction to the Neuroscience of Subjective Experience and tracking down a documentary called The Edge of Dreaming, which features Solms. (And hey, if I find his wine, too, all the better. ) All in all, a perfectly interesting night.

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2 thoughts on “Rats Giggle, The Importance of Play, and a Night at the Rubin

  1. Wow, I would have loved seeing that talk. Maybe it goes without saying, but re: animals’ rough-and-tumble play is an essential precursor to learning how to hunt … or in human terms, work. Ironic, then, that the majority of human children engage in rough-and-tumble play, then grow up to forget those experiences.

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