The Power of Play, Part 1: An Interview with Dr. Terry Marks Tarlow

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

When we engage in play activities, our brain establishes healthy patterns of development and adaptation from the first time we play peek-a-boo, to adult games like Words with Friends. Play throughout the lifespan supports a healthy brain and helps us cope with emotional and physical pain. I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Terry Marks-Tarlow for this three part series, The Power of Play. Dr. Marks-Tarlow is a psychologist in Santa Monica, California. She is past president of both the Gestalt Therapy Institute of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Society of Clinical Psychologists. Dr. Marks-Tarlow has authored several books on topics as diverse as creativity, clinical intuition, and fractals. I found her most recent book, published as part of the Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology, a fascinating and inspiring work. For part one of our interview we explore the importance of play for healthy brain development.

Terry Marks-Tarlow

G.S. In your two books, Clinical Intuition in Psychotherapy and Awakening Clinical Intuition, you talk about the importance of childhood humor and play as a way to foster healthy development of the brain and motor skills. How does humor and play influence us throughout the lifespan?

T. M. Play has often been called the “work” of childhood for good reason. When young children engage in free play, they learn all about culture at large, and adult society in particular. They practice the roles, rules, and types of relationships they will need later on in life. Beyond this, when young children use their imaginations to play, they forge the seeds of their own identities. I have written a paper for the American Journal of Play called, “The Fractal Self at Play” out of the belief that each one of us can all look back at our early imagination games to find origins of our current sense of self, interests, and even professional choices.

Meanwhile, humor is one of Arthur Koestler’s three pillars of creativity, alongside art and science. Humor constitutes a kind of social lubrication and glue—a safe way to communicate with others intimately. Within psychotherapy, I have written extensively about humor as a form of implicit communication, a kind of relational bid that expresses either safety or danger in the interpersonal dynamics. This form of communication often takes game form, with “hide and seek” as the prototypical game of therapy.

Outside of therapy, in our primary relationships, humor is often the hallmark of secure attachment, the bearer of good news, and the carrier of good will. When it comes to couples, for example, the ability to discuss significant problems in a lighthearted way using humor, was one of John Gottman’s signposts for people who will remain married ten years later. 

G. S. You talk about the way that early play, like that between a caregiver and a baby, oscillates between pleasure and pain, fear and excitement. When a mother lunges in to kiss the babies belly, or to play tickle monster, she arouses excitement that “occurs at the edges of regulatory boundaries.” Do you think that adult play is most helpful when it also takes us to the edge of our tolerance for fear and pain?

T. M. What an interesting question! I haven’t thought about this before. Here goes… I want to respond with both “yes” and “no”. “Yes”, I believe that adult play best occurs at the edges of regulatory boundaries. Throughout childhood, play represents the cutting edge of growth cognitively, emotionally, socially, and behaviorally. Alongside the free play of imagination games, this includes playing sports, dancing, and playing instruments. I would guess that play represents the cutting edge of growth throughout the lifespan, especially during periods when adults undergo transformation and change. For all ages, play represents a safe arena to try out new things; to return to intrinsic motivation and move towards that which we like and love for the mere sake of how it feels to do so; for approaching life with a passion.

But “no” in that those regulatory boundaries don’t have only to be negative ones of fear and pain. Of course, adults who love amusement rides, rock climbing (like me!), bungee jumping, are playing at those very edges of fear and pain. But, adult play can also take place at the edges of positive regulatory edges, by touching upon high intensity emotions like joy, awe, and surprise. So, for example, I am very familiar with psychotherapists who engage in the arts as a correlative talent to the art of psychotherapy. In fact, I have co-founded, curate, and co-edit the art catalog for “Mirrors of the Mind: The Psychotherapist as Artist.” Whether in the form of painting, photography, sculpture, or some other medium, these therapists often operate right at the edges of suffering, breakthrough, and other places of healing and growth. Meanwhile, so many of our patients use the arts as a vehicle for telling their stories and healing as well

G. S. Those who suffer from anxiety, anger, and stress can sometimes repress feelings and develop symptoms like headaches, gastro-intestinal disorders and muscle tension. You describe in your book how repression, the brain’s defensive strategy to keep us from knowing something that might cause us too much pain, can cause a vertical split between the verbal, conscious workings of the left part of the brain, and the emotional foundation of the right hemisphere. In what way can play help adults cope better with anxiety, anger and stress?

T.M. Repression is certainly a problem, and is certainly the case when we use left-brain, intellectual and rationalizing defenses to push down unwanted, messy emotion. Dissociation is an even more severe problem. Here, the split is less between left and right sides of the brain and more between higher, cortical levels of symbolic processing and lower, subcortical origins of emotion. Dissociation of unconscious emotion is what causes somatic conversion symptoms, like headaches, stomach aches, etc.

Play is a fabulous antidote to stress for multiple reasons. Play helps to wipe the slate clean for a period of time. That is, if we can relax completely into play, we can bring ourselves back to the present moment. This helps us to balance the two branches of our autonomic nervous system–the sympathetic and parasympathetic–by remaining relaxed, yet energized. In this way, adult play helps to prevent the build-up of allostatic load, which is stress that keeps accumulating in the nervous system that never gets fully processed.

Meanwhile, engaging in an art form or some other means of personal expression allows people to process trauma, difficult memories, or painful emotions in ways that are safe and often bypass our deepest defenses. Additionally, whenever we bring beauty and/or fun into the formula, truth—however horrific it might be–becomes more bearable.

G. S. Thank you Dr. Marks-Tarlow for sharing your wisdom today. I look forward to Part 2 of our conversation where you describe how we can increase our levels of energy, creativity and wit!

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