The periaqueductal gray region of the brain is responsible for the enjoyment of play.
On some level, most people seem to understand that play is good for them. It’s a great thing engaging in an activity for no other reason than it’s it brings joy. Whether that means doing something solo or as a group, play (especially physical activity) is good for one’s health. But why is that the case? What does the science of play look like and how does it impact our habits and patterns? A new study has been published that shines a little bit of fresh light on the science of play, and it used rats to uncover some interesting findings.
People have long understood that different parts of the brain are responsible for different types of thinking and activities. But play can be a hard thing to pin down in one specific area, as it can be so varied in what types of activities constitute “playing,” whether that be engaging the mind in play with board games or video games or engaging the body. Using rats, researchers have been able to gain a better understanding of where the brain lights up when playing and what underlying processes may be involved.
It was already known before this research that rats would continue to play even after the cortex is removed from the brain. So, it’s not likely that the cortex is where the enjoyment of play comes from. However, researchers wanted to target the periaqueductal gray region of the brain, or PAG. Instinctive behaviors tend to come from this area, so it was thought that play could be related to the PAG in addition to things like self-defense and perceiving pain.
To work on this problem, researchers played with rats – by tickling them – and watched for indications of rat laughter that spoke to their enjoyment of the play session. This provided good feedback and the rats wanted to engage in the playing process.
That all changed when drugs were administered that would block the activity of the PAG in the brain. With that drug engaged, the rats no longer showed much enjoyment in playing, and they didn’t really respond in a meaningful way while being tickled. That’s a pretty strong indication that researchers had narrowed in on the right section of the brain with their study.
It’s not just the enjoyment of play that was interesting to see adjust through the use of drugs that block the PAG, but also the loss of interest in playing. Rats are instinctually interested in playing, like humans and most other animals, but without their PAG able to function as it normally does, that interest disappeared.
To be sure, it’s not necessary for people to understand the science behind play in order to engage with their favorite activities and reap the mental health benefits. However, taking some time to learn about the science and see what the latest research is showing can provide just a bit of motivation and encouragement to set aside plenty of playtime on a regular basis.