Move and Play to Nourish Your Brain

Why do humans need brains? To think, most people would say. But the brain’s most important job is to move the body. Plants, trees, bacteria, and fungi are not capable of independent motion. Therefore, they need no brain.

Born helpless

Human beings, in contrast to all other animals, are born totally helpless and stay that way for a long time. This is because we had to strike a compromise to walk upright. Human beings are capable of some highly advanced and unique movements, such as running on two legs, creating artwork with our hands, and producing intelligible speech.

To accomplish these feats we need very big brains. Unfortunately, walking around so that our hands are free means our pelvis needs to be relatively small. So human beings are born very early in their development. Even full-term babies are extremely premature by animal-kingdom standards. A baby chimpanzee is somewhat independent and is able to get around at much the same level as a two-year-old child.

A baby gnu literally hits the ground running, up on its hooves and traveling with the herd within minutes after birth. By contrast, at birth, the only voluntary movements a baby can do are sucking and crying.

Babies learn by moving

Imagine what it must be like to emerge from the darkness of the womb into the hustle and bustle of the world. Philosopher and psychologist William James called it a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” but the process of development begins almost immediately. The baby seeks to explore the world, to see, to reach and grasp, and then to go. A baby doesn’t need a personal trainer for motivation or instruction to roll over, crawl, walk, or run.

The brain and nervous system begin to coordinate the muscles of the lips, tongue, and throat. Then children begin to speak. There is no need to teach them this. All they need is exposure to normal speech of their environment. In fact, it is difficult to suppress these behaviors.

Yet, we manage. As we get older, many of us become sedentary, stuck, and immobile. What happens to our inner drive to try new things and move, and how do we rekindle it?

The magic of play

The answer, of course, is play. Playing is magical. It is the abracadabra moment when we create something out of nothing. Playing is fun and spontaneous. Playful movement engages and involves us. Many of the great minds of history attribute their genius not to books or universities but to their ability to continue to look at and explore the world with childlike wonder.

Playing depends on movement. Playing without moving is daydreaming and imagination.

While they are crucial to the creative spark, daydreaming with movement isn’t enough. Conversely, play without imagination is usually boring and unsatisfying—like routine exercise.

Children and adults require frequent, vigorous, active movement to keep our brains healthy. You have probably heard that fish is brain food. But the nourishment our brains really crave is movement.