Why It Pays to Play Around

The 19th-century physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared his progress in solving a problem to that of a mountain climber “compelled to retrace his steps because his progress stopped.” A mountain climber, von Helmholtz said, “hits upon traces of a fresh path, which again leads him a little further.” The physicist’s introspection provokes the question: How do creative minds overcome valleys to get to the next higher peak?

Because thinking minds are different from evolving organisms and self-assembling molecules, we cannot expect them to use the same means—mechanisms like genetic drift and thermal vibrations—to overcome deep valleys in the landscapes they explore. But they must have some way to achieve the same purpose. As it turns out, they have more than just one—many more. But one of the most important is play.

I don’t mean the rule-based play of a board game or the competitive play of a soccer match, but rather the kind of freewheeling, unstructured play that children perform with a pile of LEGO blocks or with toy shovels and buckets in a sandbox. I mean playful behavior without immediate goals and benefits, without even the possibility of failure.

Paul McCartney has said he dreamed the tune for “Yesterday” and “woke up one morning with this tune in my head.” In dreams, as in play, writes Andreas Wagner, “our minds

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