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How Play Made the Modern World

By Steven Johnson
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  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Wonderland by Steven Johnson

Wonderland (2016) argues that the role of play and fun in human history is undervalued. We have been told by history books that wars, revolutions and monarchs are the drivers of history, and we thus tend to overlook more mundane factors in favor of powerful figures and famous movements. However, the pleasure we derive from bone flutes, board games, the color purple or alcohol have likewise contributed greatly to invention and progress.

Key idea 1 of 8

Humans’ hardwired desire for play has been an underappreciated driver of progress.

When we think of innovation and progress in human history, the easy assumption to make would be that necessity or utilitarianism played a part at some point.

But in reality, many important inventions have been sparked in the crucible of play. A little bit of fun has gone a long way!

Consider the Banu Musa brothers. They were Islamic scholars in ninth-century Baghdad. As two of the best engineers of their time, they published groundbreaking work on mechanics and hydraulics in The Book of Ingenious Devices.

They described their self-built machines and introduced principles that laid the groundwork for innovations such as the steam engine or the jet engine, which would not be built until centuries later.

Useful though their ideas became, the Banu Musa brothers began by just messing about. In fact, they spent most of their time trying to entertain others by constructing frivolous trinkets and toys.

They built automated dolls, self-playing instruments and even a mechanical peacock that dispensed water and soap when its feathers were pulled.

There’s a powerful conclusion in this anecdote: fun and play have shaped history far more than one might assume – and for good reason; the human brain is predisposed to engineer discovery through play.

First of all, the brain loves surprises.

Whenever we encounter novelty, our brains give us a shot of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which provides us with a natural high. Consequently, we're wired to want to explore our surroundings and seek out new experiences. It’s through this mechanism that we might be led to important discoveries or unique creations as a result of mere curiosity or happenstance.

Second, our brains just work differently when we’re playing. We suspend our disbelief and our minds start to make previously unimagined associations.

It’s in this freewheeling and playful mode that our minds are at their most creative.

In the next blink, we’ll examine what discoveries humans have made while at play.

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