Health by Design Interactive – The mindset of play

June 5, 2022

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Believe it or not, you possess the most sophisticated mechanism in the entire universe. It’s your brain. Today on Health by Design Interactive we continue to look at how we can tune the human intelligence system to achieve health, happiness and success. Here’s your host, Nicole Welbanks

Nicole Welbanks 

On behalf of Manulife Group Benefits, welcome to health by design Interactive. I'm Nicole Welbanks and today we're continuing our discussion with Dr. Shimi Kang. Shimi is a medical doctor and clinical professor at the University of British Columbia. She's a best-selling author and keynote speaker, and a recognized expert on the neuroscience behind innovation, leadership and motivation. Through her work, she provides science-based solutions for health, happiness and achievement in the workplace, classroom and at home. Welcome back Shimi.

Dr. Shimi Kang 

Hi, Nicole. So nice to be here again.

Nicole Welbanks 

Shimi, in this series, you've helped us begin to understand the true potential of the human intelligence system. We've looked at how people can use their multiple centres of intelligence to make better decisions, for their health, in their work and in their personal lives. So far, we've touched on the gut-brain and the heart-brain.

Today we'll explore the brain, we should all be familiar with, the brain in our heads. So, tell us a little bit about the brain in our heads and when we should listen to that brain instead of our gut or heart-brains.

Dr. Shimi Kang 

Thanks, such great questions, Nicole. So, it's so amazing, because now science is telling us we actually don't have one brain actually not even three. It's something called a distributed brain. So, there's intelligence even in our hands. We have sensory neurons that I'm going to talk about that as I talk about play.

But our head-brain or big brain looks like this. It is unique to humans. And what is so important when you think of Homo sapiens, that word the sapiens means thinking. And the neocortex, which is the new part of our brain, is really what makes us unique. So, this is this frontal part. And this top part is what makes us have the ability to speak to each other have a language and have thinking have long-term planning.

So, a bacteria actually can move away from danger, but it doesn't know why. That's an instinctual response. But a human moves away from danger, understands why, and then plans on how to stay away the next time.

So, our big brain has hundreds of millions of neurons, each are connected to over a trillion connections, it is known as the most sophisticated thing in the entire universe. And it's something that I think everybody would really benefit to understand a bit more about how it works.

Nicole Welbanks 

What kinds of decisions is the brain in our head best suited to make?

Dr. Shimi Kang 

Yeah, so our brain in our heads does interact with our entire body. And it receives information, let's say from our gut-brain, and our heart-brain. And when we are in a state of calm or rest, everything works together. And that's the actual brain you want to use. So that's our entire system, or holistic or disseminated brain.

But if we were to separate it, this brain is really good on left side kind of logic, technical skill, memory, and cognitive functioning. And then we heard right-brain, kind of more big picture thinking, empathy, emotion, but it's really not. That's a false debate, our entire brain is a synthesis.

And what it loves to do, and people don't realize, it really loves to play. It loves to learn from trial and error. It loves to try new things, novelty. This brain evolved mainly when we were hunter-gatherers outside in nature, exploring our environment. And so, we really need to stimulate it through novelty, exploration and trying new things.

Nicole Welbanks 

As we think of the people listening who are running a business or leading an organization or a team, what can they do to inspire their people? How can they use the brain in their heads to help their workforces adjust to the ongoing health crisis around us, pressures at home, demands at work and other personal stresses?

Dr. Shimi Kang 

Yeah, so it's really interesting. We're at a moment in time, where we've never had such fast-paced change. This is unprecedented stress. Disconnection, loneliness are on the rise, and yet, never before have we had a need to adapt and innovate. Because things are changing so fast, there's no playbook, let's say, for a pandemic.

So, what we need now is actually to tap into our entire intelligence system, and especially this thinking brain of innovation and adaptability. So, the way I like to tell people is bring in more play into your workplace and into your home.

Play could be an activity, but it's actually a mindset. It is a mindset of approaching something think of that beginner's mind or that child's mind. When they're playing. They're not stressed, they are exploring, they are trying new things. So, the play mindset is what leads to an exchange of ideas, adaptability, and innovation and play activities, of course do that as well.

Nicole Welbanks 

This idea of play is really interesting. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Dr. Shimi Kang 

Right? Yeah, so play is a fascinating topic. You know, I've written entire books on it. Play actually is pervasive in nature. So, all animals play dolphins play polar bears play. And the more sophisticated the animal, the more we're meant to play, especially as adults.

So, play is what actually activates this front part of our brain. It is our direct road to adaptability and innovation. There is seven kinds of different play, and each of them has a really important purpose.

So, there's something called body movement, play, think of dance, Pilates, wrestling. When my boys used to wrestle as kids, I didn't really like it, especially in a restaurant. But then in my research, I realized that the push and pull of the physical body getting down and falling down and getting back up actually strengthened our cerebellum, this area here, which improves our social relationships and our resilience, our ability to fall down and get back up. When we rough and tumble or body movement play, we're less likely to get bullied, we're more likely to assert ourselves.

There's storytelling play, there's imaginary play, which adults maybe like, "what is that?" I like to call it visualization, there's a whole science behind it. So, we know that when tennis players or basketball players or golf players visualize their shot, it's actually sending a signal a slide to our entire nervous system of what's important to us. So that's how adults imagine through visualization.

And celebratory play, just really taking the time to celebrate that, like I said, you would never celebrate if you're being chased by a tiger.

So, play is very fascinating. It's our fastest way for adaptability. And I love to tell a quick story that scientists from the National Institutes of Health actually researched play. And they found that animals when they inhibited play behaviours, weren't able to adapt to a threat in their environment.

So, one study had rats, actually mice, and they were introduced to the smell of danger, it was the collar of a cat, all the smart rats ran into a hole, the ones that were allowed to play slowly came out and lived a happy rat life. The others died in the hole. They weren't able to try something new, they weren't able to explore, they weren't able to take those little risks, to explore their environment. So, play is fundamental to our survival and for our thriving and success.

Nicole Welbanks 

Building off of your idea of play, I know a lot of your work involves families and children. How can parents inspire their children to make good use of all of these centres of intelligence?

Dr. Shimi Kang 

Yeah, well, that now you got me talking about the one thing that really is often inhibiting our ability to have self-care and relax, connect with each other in a meaningful way and use our brain or cognitive process.

And we know the biggest thing right now is technology, and actually gaming and media. Young people are on devices, somewhere between seven and nine hours a day. That's after school or homework. Teenagers are checking their phone over 200 times a day.

And sadly, often what they're consuming is what I call either toxic tech, you know, hate, cyber bullying, fear of missing out and comparing your life to others. Or the junk tech, like the sugar, the mindless scrolling, the video gaming, that's lots and lots of dopamine. And what we want to guide young people towards is a consumption of healthy tech. Tech that leads to meaningful connection, creativity, learning, and any kind of self-care practices.

So that's all the topic of my latest book. But really, we need to teach children tech consumption just like a diet, we have to start early, we have to be repetitive. And we have to remember it's not a one-time conversation.

Nicole Welbanks 

And if we think about all of these centres of intelligence working together, what is your advice for helping us find the balance between all of them?

Dr. Shimi Kang 

Yeah, so and I do want to say about tech, that's not just for kids, right? That's for adults, and everyone, we all need to take inventory of our tech diets.

So, finding the balance, I say is simple but not easy. And we actually know how to do it. That doesn't mean we're doing it. It's pretty simple right to drink water to sleep to get outside. Most of us have heard this advice before. And that doesn't mean we're doing it.

We have to get to the consistent application, the consistent habit. So, habits are hard to break bad habits because we get little hits of pleasure dopamine and good habits, they take time for the reward to come in. They're more long term.

But the good news is our brains are what we call neuroplastic, we can always change, we can always develop new habits, just like the trails and a forest, if we keep walking on that trail will develop eventually a highway. So, to really keep life in balance, the simple, not easy things, that self-care for the gut-brain, the connection for the heart-brain, and play, recreation, think of that word, recreate.

Start small and micro habit two minutes a day is what the science is saying. Find a group that's interested. So, join a chat group or a walking group, we do much better when we are doing things socially, reward yourself with a tiny reward not after three months, but after seven days of your two minutes.

And wire and fire that habit with something you're already doing, or something that might be already fun for you. So, when I tried to meditate, I started it for two minutes, joined a group and did it right after I brush my teeth. And I gave myself a little bubble bath and guilt-free dinner in front of the TV one day. So, we want to wire and fire new habits. That's how we find the habits simple not easy. We know this, that doesn't mean we're doing it.

Nicole Welbanks 

You know, it's obvious, I think, to all of us that the world is moving very fast on on so many fronts, and that ability to adapt and create and innovate is so important. If you could leave us with with just a couple of tips, what can we do to improve these brain skills?

Dr. Shimi Kang 

Yeah, so the three things, play, others, downtime. Ask yourself, maybe give a ranking that attend, how are you doing for each one.

Some people are really great at self-care, but they're fairly lonely and eat dinner in front of, you know, the computer. So, they need more connection. They need to, you know, if you live alone, go on FaceTime, call a friend.

Ask yourself how you're doing for play, give it a number, and then try to improve one thing a little bit at a time. Play is really fascinating. There's seven, eight different kinds of play, we all don't have to do the same thing. Some people love body movement play. That could be like yoga, Pilates, hiking, dancing.

Others like social play. Others, even something like visualization, closing your eyes and imagining, you know, your future or your goals actually send signals to all three nervous systems of where you want to be a bit like a homing beacon to get rid of all the nonsense and noise.

So, these practices, you know, whether you've heard them in neuroscience or from your grandmother to close your eyes and think positive. There really is benefit to them in our ever-changing world where the three biggest threats are stress, loneliness, and the third one we didn't talk much about is perfectionism. That's on the rise. We need to play more. That's the opposite of perfectionism. Connect more and regulate and just rest and have that downtime.

Nicole Welbanks 

Dr. Kang, this has been another fascinating conversation. I want to thank you for all the great information you shared and all the ideas you've given us to think about. I think your insights are just what we all need as we set out to thrive in 2022.

Dr. Shimi Kang 

Thank you so much, Nicole. What a fascinating conversation. I want to remind everyone that this science belongs to you. No one is excluded from the power of their three brains from endorphin, oxytocin, serotonin, so keep up and spread that message of play, others, downtime.

And final words, you may know the success equation, there's two parts. One is survival of the fittest, which is actually adaptability, the best fit with an ever-changing world that we are in. The second part is diversity of the species. So, when we play when we connect with each other, when we take care of ourselves, that is our fastest and most fun, effective way to get to that adaptability and that diversity. Thank you so much for having me here.

Nicole Welbanks 

Thank you again, to those listening. Feel free to share this recording with anyone you think will enjoy it. You can learn more about Dr. Shimi Kang and her work by going to her website Until next time, have a good day.

Your brain is the most sophisticated thing in the entire universe, and it loves to play, try new things, and learn through trial and error.

Watch our interview with award-winning psychiatrist and bestselling author Dr. Shimi Kang to learn how adopting a mindset of play can help you cope, adapt, and innovate. She explains how you can move from stress to growth by listening to the messages your body sends you.

Follow our series of articles and interviews that encourage all of us to think about how we think.

Shimi Kang is an award-winning medical doctor, researcher, and expert on the neuroscience of innovation, leadership, and motivation. Dr. Kang provides science-based solutions for health, happiness, and achievement in the workplace, classroom, and at home. Dr. Kang is a Clinical Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, best-selling author, and keynote speaker.


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