by Zat Rana
After the death of
Isaac Newton - a mythic figure even in his own lifetime - the
poet Alexander Pope wrote the following epitaph for him:
"Nature and nature's
laws lay hid in night;
God said 'Let Newton be' and all was light."
When you read something
like this about a figure of history, it becomes hard to imagine them
Most of us don't invent
calculus or redefine optics in our 20s. We certainly don't walk
around laying down new foundations for the study of nature.
But mortal they were. And as fascinating as it is to deify them,
it's perhaps just as interesting to imagine what they may have been
like in person.
We know that Newton was both humble and arrogant.
When facing the laws of
nature, he approached his work with reserved caution. When dealing
with his rivals, however, he could be petty and vindictive - not
exactly the stoic image of perfection that first comes to
We know that in spite of his great fame, he lived a mostly
solitary life, not too focused on developing his
interpersonal relationships, perhaps even dying a virgin.
It makes you wonder how
different the world may have been had he been more tempted by those
very normal human interests.
The most telling thing about him, however, I think, comes from a
reflection he supposedly shared with a friend about his life right
before he died:
"I do not know what I
may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only
like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now
and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than
ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered
I like this because it
shows you the child in him, the one we can recognize in our own
reflection if we pay attention.
But more so, I like it
because, from this human image, we can take out something for
ourselves, something that I think is becoming more relevant today.
Evolutionary Purpose of Play
On one end, the idea that Newton lived such a solitary life brings
about a slight sadness that I can't immediately shake.
But then, when I read his
own description of how it looked from the inside, it fades away.
The activity of play is universal among all human cultures
that have been studied. We can define it in various ways. When the
idea is brought up, each of us imagines something slightly
different, but at a core level, it's clear that we are all still
talking about roughly the same thing.
It's an activity we do just to do it, at least on the surface. It's
fun and exciting, and the fact that it doesn't feel like it's
stressful because we're associating it with some future reward seems
to make it more free, more honest.
Scientists, of course, disagree a fair bit about both how to
define play and what the evolutionary purpose of it is,
but without getting bogged down by the details, our simple
definition isn't too far detached from any truth, and in terms of
it seems to be agreed
that it serves to either train us physically, socially, or
In this sense, play is
an act of learning.
More specifically, it's a
low-cost way to explore the world in order to obtain
high-value advantages. To push it even further, it's a search for
the truth of
the reality that we want to
effectively inhabit as we live and as we age over time.
When you are born into a particular cultural environment, you don't
yet have all the tools to make sense of it.
You have to do the work
to figure out where the boundaries are, what norms are accepted, and
the different skills that will be required from you as you become a
member of society.
Like Newton, as a
child, you walk around picking up different pebbles and shells,
studying them, identifying their relationships to the
surrounding world and to other people, and then based on that,
you start to store information that is consistent with your
experience as to guide future experiences.
The key thing to note
about play is that because it isn't entirely purposeful, the
boundaries are blurred, which then allows you to redefine them so
you can see something new, something that provides value in a way
you may not have realized by acting out of duty.
Exploration and Exploitation
The most obvious thing about this kind of fun is that it's more
common in children than it is in adults.
And it makes sense:
by the time you are
an adult, you have mostly done the work required to figure out
Based on this
relationship to play, we can roughly divide life into two realms of
You spend the first part
of your life exploring, seeing, and understanding, but once some of
it has sunk to a satisfactory level, you start to exploit the fruits
growing on the foundation you have laid.
By Newton's analogy, after a certain period, you have picked up all
the pebbles and shells you are likely to play with, and you walk
away from the ocean content to just continue rolling those same ones
over in your hands.
For the physical lessons born out of play, this makes sense.
After a certain point,
you have learned how to use your body and you don't need to test it
in different ways throughout your life. You know how to run, and you
know how to play a sport you love, and it makes sense to just keep
doing those things over time, with nothing lost.
There is, however, a problem when pursuing this same
explore-exploit pattern in the social and the cognitive aspects
of our life.
Today, the social and
cognitive aspects are far more complex than before. Our culture is
evolving at a rate which means that if you don't keep up with it,
then you no longer understand the truth of that reality as you live
In a world that doesn't change too fast, a brief childhood of
exploration would give you all the information you would need to
deal with the various norms around you and with the decision-making
patterns that are likely to arise.
But in a culture that is
increasingly networked, doubling the amount of information produced
every few years, there can no longer be a difference between the
exploration and the exploitation phase.
Newton's search for truth moved him from pebble to shell throughout
his whole life, but it didn't mean that he left the old ones behind
for the new ones. He gave exploitation his due attention, while also
playfully keeping an eye out for the hidden truths in the
Not making room for play in modern adult life is a strategic
disadvantage. Exploration and exploitation are no longer distinct.
They are continually
co-evolving as the world quickly unfolds around us.
Dealing With a
Today, culture is more complex, information is more abundant, and
our collective environment covers a greater terrain of reality.
Play is how we map out this terrain. Traditionally, it was enough to
simply spend our childhood and some early parts of our youth having
our fun, without following the usual rules, without being too
constrained by duty and routine, to make sense of everything.
This is no longer the case...
Our environments are no
longer static. They're dynamic in a way that means that if you don't
keep up, you're essentially not living in the same social and
cognitive reality as those around you.
While in the past exploration was a distinct phase from
exploitation, today, they have merged.
You can no longer get
away with spending the first few decades of your life playing and
then dedicating the last few to work. Play and work have to occupy
the same range.
To many of us, the idea of play in this way is so foreign that even
if all of this makes sense, the question remains:
What does play look
like when you are, say, 30 or 40 or 50...?
And the answer is that,
it looks like a space
of time, simply left to be dictated by curiosity beyond what you
do out of habit - that could mean anything from taking an
improve class to simply reading more.
The pebbles and the
shells Newton picked up gave us the elementary laws of nature that
we have since built our
understanding of reality on.
They led us to uncover
the knowledge in front of us so that we could better master our
surrounding environment. In the 21st-century, playfulness
won't just remain a memory of childhood.
It will be the foundation
that we use to construct and validate the truths of our