Here’s why music and dance lift us up—individually and all together.
Modern society has created an irreconcilable paradox: Spend your youth wishing you were grown up, then spend adulthood trying to relive your youth. While many qualities are associated with being young, perhaps no greater act inspires this fantasy as play.
Play is much more than having fun. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp believes it to be a primary process embedded in the ancient parts of our brain. As an evolutionary and social tool, play teaches us boundaries within our group. This reflects why more joy seems to emanate from adults who are playful in their outlook of life compared to those carrying the weight of existence on their shoulders.
A history of play
Let’s consider play from the perspective of yoga. The Sanskrit term leela, which translates as “play,” is a constant dance occurring in the cosmos, which keeps the universe in order. This concept has led to everything that has been created—creation and destruction are constantly occurring thanks to a dance performed by the gods (Tandeva), which is symbolized by Shiva in Dancer’s Pose (Natraj).
Leela is related to another term, maya, which is often translated as “illusion.” In “The Artful Universe” (State University of New York Press, 1997), professor William K. Mahony says it’s better to think of as “magic creative force.” Maya is the evolutionary force behind everything we experience and imagine. Just as our minds invent stories, it is also the force behind the invention of buildings, roads, wireless networks—everything we have ever dreamed into being. And this creative process is accomplished through play.
We sometimes believe that being an adult means being serious. Yet a playful attitude is essential for creativity, imagination, social bonding and emotional regulation at any age. This matters in our workouts, as well, especially when music is involved.
People moving together with the sole purpose of having fun and feeling good, like you might see in a dance club or group fitness class, elicit a connection with music and play that dates back to ancient times. Most interestingly, there appears to be a biological utility to these practices.
Dancing and exercising—as well as playing and listening to music—promote positive emotions through brain chemistry, social interaction and in the physiology of arousing the body to move. They are pleasurable experiences, as well, energizing and enlivening us while offering the opportunity to let go from the burden of everyday life. Music and play renew lost optimism while opening us up to a world of possibilities.
Both music and play affect brain processes that reward us with pleasure. They allow us to engage fully with others and feel a deep emotional connection. Language is unnecessary in enjoying the benefits of either. Because of this, scientists believe music is not only a precursor to language, but it also evolved out of natural playful activities. It is, in many ways, how we became human.
In the same way that opioids and pleasure hormones like serotonin are released when listening to music, playing releases the same chemicals and hormones. Neuroscientists, developmental psychologists and biologists recognize play as a profound biological process. It has evolved over eons in many animals to promote survival. It shapes the brain and helps make animals smarter and more adaptable. It also fosters bonds and empathy and helps bind complex social groups together.
The ancestral sources of social joy and laughter are what Panksepp calls play. Panksepp, alongside other scientists—such as Brian Knutson, Lucy Biven and Dan Siegel—claim that play is a neurological emotional system that serves as the foundation of joy. Panksepp also believes that it is through play that we learn how to operate as social animals.
In “The Archaeology of Mind” (W. W. Norton & Co., 2012), Panksepp writes, “If you’re a mammal, you cannot have all your skills built into the brain—all the social skills you need—and you should have a brain system that’s devoted to essentially teaching you the nature of your own kind. And play is a wonderful way to do it. The desire to engage with other members of your species in such a powerful way, and a joyous way, that you will learn what you can do to others and others can do to you. So, I think PLAY is the playing ground for social skills.”
Professor Steven Mithen believes music was used to build group identity through playing together. Playing and sharing music with others help facilitate bonds between familial as well as disparate parties. As Mithen writes in “The Singing Neanderthals” (Harvard University Press, 2007), “Music is about opening up and welcoming people. It is about conveying information, sharing emotions, soothing infants and all the ways to facilitate human interaction. Music could also then lead those groups into battle or bring them together in worship.”
Time to play
For this month’s playlist, I chose songs that remind me of the qualities described above: social, motivating and playful. The set opens with ’90s-era (or ’90s-era inspired) hip-hop. The profound sense of community offered by the Beastie Boys, Black Star, Wu-Tang, Jurassic 5 and The Pharcyde reminds us of the strength in numbers.
The last seven songs are upbeat grooves that always bring a smile to my face. This includes “Hermetico” by Balkan Beat Box, which many people will recognize—Jason Derulo lifted a horn sample for his breakthrough hit “Talk Dirty.” The set closes with lesser-known tracks by Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley, both funky and designed to get you moving and, hopefully, smiling.
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