The Power of Play, Part 2: An Interview with Dr. Terry Marks-Tarlow

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

In our last interview, The Power of Play, Part 1, Dr. Terry Marks-Tarlow described the importance of play, throughout the lifespan, for optimal brain health.  Dr. Marks-Tarlow’s most recent book, Awakening Clinical Intuition,  nominated for a Gradiva award, shows psychotherapists how to identify and use their own embodied emotions to help their patients heal. Anger, anxiety and stress can limit our ability to cope, and narrow our search for solutions. In this interview, Dr. Marks-Tarlow shares how play, humor, creativity and wit, can help restore us to emotional health.

Sun Dial in Black 1

G.S. Playful people, or those who can convert many aspects of daily life into play, often possess high levels of energy, creativity and wit. When we feel anxiety and stress it can often lead to inhibition of playfulness and humor. Do you think consciously cultivating playfulness and humor is a worthwhile pursuit? Do you think playfulness can provide some healing benefit to those suffering from anxiety, anger and stress?

T.M. The relationship between play versus energy, creativity and wit is a chicken-and-egg one. People who play tend to generate more energy, creativity and wit; while people with energy, creativity and wit love to play! Children who are highly stressed won’t play. The more traumatized, the less the inclination to play. Helping children to do so also helps to relieve the stress. So many adults who are stressed are fixated on looking forward. They are locked into tunnel vision toward their future goals and fears. Meanwhile, they are robbed of enjoyment and contentment in the present moment. Returning to play is the fastest way to restore balance to life, in my opinion.

G.S. You write that humor is registered in the same part of the brain as fear (the amygdala). The amygdala also plays an important role in the formation of problem anger. Do you think that engaging higher order cortical processes, like will and intention, can help those with anger and anxiety?

T. M. Humor forms a double-edged sword for people with anger issues. On the one hand, it can be a useful tool for self-reflection if it serves to bring problems to the surface and to soften self-seriousness or intensity. But, whether consciously or unconsciously, when humor is used as a weapon to express anger or with the covert intention of shaming or humiliating others, it can be extremely destructive. We see this all the time with bullying.

G. S. Many people will find humor at times of great grief and sadness, such as at a funeral, or in a hospital. Do you know of any research that distinguishes between types of humor, such as hostile, humiliating humor, and their impact on anxiety, anger or stress? Can hostile humor, or jokes that degrade or humiliate others have a harmful effect on our ability to cope with anger and anxiety?

Glee!T. M. There is definitely a body of literature regarding different kinds of humor. Of course, Norman Cousin’s Anatomy of an Illness is a classic book describing the role that laughing and indulging in comedy played in this luminary’s physical healing. Within psychotherapy and especially the psychoanalytic community, there is a range of responses to humor. On one end of the continuum is the classic psychoanalytic interpretation of humor by Ernst Kris as a defense against strong emotion. As relates to this position, in a book on Creativity and Play in Psychotherapy that I am currently co-editing with Marion Solomon and Dan Siegel as a follow-up to last year’s interpersonal neurobiology conference at UCLA, there is a chapter on the underlying aggression of humor by British theater director, Jonathan Lynn.

There is no question that sarcasm, contempt, disgust, prejudice and other dark emotions can be veiled and expressed through humor. This can be particularly damaging to others, precisely because humor is a right-brain expression that easily cuts underneath people’s defenses. In my own early treatment in psychotherapy, one of the first things that happened was that my therapist became horrified by the “jokes” my father used to make at my own expense without my even realizing it. What I found funny and simply let roll off my back, my therapist found humiliating. This very different response helped me cut through my own thick skin in a way that has remained helpful ever since. 

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, in my own books on clinical intuition, I write about the potential for humor to connect people with one another and to communicate bids for engagement and disengagement at the implicit level. Self-deprecating humor can be a way to shine a soft and compassionate light onto the self, including our weakness, mistakes, and foibles. With patients who have histories of severe trauma, the ability to recount a painful memory with a smile or sense of humor or to find what is funny in what previously seemed only painful, is often a sign of positive growth. In fact, this might even signal a particular form of memory reconsolidation, which is now being recognized as a universal neurobiological marker of change in psychotherapy. What this means is that rather than becoming triggered or subject to flashback experiences, the ability to hold our stories lightly can signal a new phase of mastery in achieving just the right emotional distance from past events for current comfort and even pleasure.   

G. S. I like that phrase, “holding our stories lightly.” It implies a self-compassionate gentleness when relating to personal pain. We remember our past in stories that we can modify to better cope and reduce anger, anxiety and stress. The process of psychotherapy helps people to change destructive patterns of thought and behavior into healthier stories that enhance growth, meaning and the capacity for joy.  

Thank you Dr. Marks-Tarlow for this thought-provoking conversation. I look forward to part 3 of our interview where we cover the role of imagination, the latest adult coloring book craze, and how you play. 

Dr. Terry Marks-Tarlow is available for training and public speaking engagements on a wide variety of topics including:

  • Clinical Intuition in Psychotherapy 
  • The Complexity of Trauma
  • The Neuroscience of Creativity and Play

Contact Dr. Terry Marks-Tarlow at, or email,

Photo and art courtesy of Terry Marks-Tarlow, Ph.D.

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