[Revised 3 May 1990]
AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD:
THE ROLE OF METANOIA IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Charles D. Laughlin
Abstract: This paper extends the earlier biogenetic structural theory of play and games to account for
playfulness in the transpersonal domain of human experience. Theorists are cautioned to pay more
attention to the internal structures that produce play. The concept of "metanoia" is defined as the
intrinsic loosening of habitual patterns of neurophysiological entrainment, and play behavior is defined as
metanoia involving motor activity. Play is discussed in relation to Abraham Maslow's theory of a
hierarchy of needs and the Maulavi and Tibetan dream yoga are offered as examples of transpersonal
play. A number of conceptual stumbling blocks to a general theory of play are eliminated.
And in any case, I affirm as a theory of cognition and of science ...that at the highest
levels of development of humanness, knowledge is positively rather than negatively
correlated with a sense of mystery, awe, humility, ultimate ignorance, reverence, and a
sense of oblation.
Abraham H. Maslow, The Farther
Reaches of Human Nature
I never metanoia I didn't like.
The task I have set for myself is to extend John McManus' and my earlier theory of play and
games (Laughlin and McManus 1982) to account for playfulness in the transpersonal domain of human
Although it took some years to be published, our earlier theory of play was actually
completed in 1975 and was an application of a more general biogenetic structural
perspective on the relations of brain and culture (see Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974,
experience -- in the domain described by Abraham Maslow (1968, 1971) under the labels
"self-actualization" and "transcendence." In the earlier theory we advocated a neurobiological
explanation of play and games, and found the anlage of these in the behaviors of non-human animals.
In the course of our research, it became evident to us that many of the definitional hassles encountered in
the study of play derive from too great an emphasis upon the external (or behavioral) features of play --
what Teilhard de Chardin (1959) called the "without" of phenomena -- and too little a concern for the
internal (or structural) processes essential to play -- Teilhard's "within" of phenomena. Our approach is
thus in opposition to the more "without" formulations taken by theorists like Huizinga (1970) and more
towards the "within" perspectives of theorists like Norbeck (1974, 1979) and Tipps (1981), the latter types
usually being more sensitive to the role of play in neurocognitive and spiritual development.
Many theorists systematically miss the boat by linking their interest in play too closely with easily
observable patterns of behavior, and not closely enough with the more difficult to observe metanoic
phases of the internal organization of the nervous system -- metanoia being our label for those phases
during which neural structures become relatively free from adaptational press and are more able to
develop. I wish to show that metanoic "play" is a characteristic of phases of consciousness at every level
d'Aquili, Laughlin and McManus 1979). At that time, biogenetic structuralism had not
fully incorporated an experiential and transpersonal dimension into its formulations, a
defect that has been rectified over the past decade and a half (see e.g., Laughlin 1989a,
1989b, Laughlin, McManus and Stephens 1981, Laughlin, McManus and Shearer
1983), leading eventually to a neurophenomenological approach to symbolism,
epistemology and consciousness (see Laughlin 1988, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili
I am grateful to Ms. Susan Sample for providing me with this useful concept.
Metanoia derives from the Greek and means to change one's mind, to reorient one's
way of life, to be spiritually converted, or to repent or do penitence.
of development, from the earliest pre- and perinatal period of growth (Trevarthen and Grant 1980) which
may involve behavior a good bit of the time, to the most mature stages for which there may be little or no
While extending the earlier theory, I will endeavor both to examine playfulness in techniques
leading to higher phases of consciousness, and to eliminate some of the major conceptual stumbling
blocks that have hampered our understanding of play. These stumbling blocks include: the false
dichotomy between work and play, the related distinction between what is playful and what is serious, the
limiting of our definition of play solely to behavioral phenomena, the relationship between play and
dreaming, the uncritical equation of play with flow, the view that play is uncreative and unproductive, the
opposing of play and religion, and whether we are to use the term "play" to refer to all forms of metanoia,
or only to the behavioral aspects of metanoia.
THE EARLIER THEORY: PLAY AND THE
DEVELOPMENT OF THE COGNIZED ENVIRONMENT
Experiential reality is a cognitive and perceptual construction produced by the nervous system,
and is constrained in its nature by the internal properties of the cognizing organism. Our experience of
both the external world and our own organism are essentially produced by the activities of neural
models. These models exist within the immensely intricate organization of the cells and fibers
comprising our nervous system (Davis et al. 1988), especially those comprising the cerebral cortex.
When we speak of a model, we do not refer either to an ideal type or a description of a
theory. A model is an actual organization of tissue the function of which is to constitute
some aspect or aspects of the world before the mind (see Davis et al. 1988).
The cortex is the phylogenetically newest part of the nervous system and forms a
corrugated layer of tissue on the top of the brain. We agree with Doty (1975) that
conscious processing is largely a cortical function.
The course by which the nervous system comes to know about the organism of which it is a part,
and the environment within which the organism is ensconced, is a well ordered one from beginning to
end. The neural networks comprising our knowledge and experience have their developmental origin in
initial (what we call) neurognostic structures that are present in the cognitively competent fetus and
infant (Spelke 1985, 1988a, 1988b) and that manifest an organization which is largely genetically
determined. Although there is remarkable selectivity in the developmental reorganization of these early
structures, that selectivity itself is neurognostically regulated. Some potential organizations deteriorate,
others become active, and still others remain relatively latent and undeveloped (see Changeux 1985,
Edelman 1987, Varela 1979). This selectivity is one reason why there is such remarkable flexibility in
cognitive adaptation to the essentially turbulent and evolving nature of the organism and the world.
There is now considerable evidence that environmental enrichment is a major factor in both pre- and
perinatal elaboration of neurophysiological processes in both humans and non-human animals (Renner
and Rosenzweig 1987, Diamond 1988).
The Cognized and Operational Environments
The organism and its environment are inextricably linked in an intricate dance, coupled for a
lifetime in an increasingly complex process of mutual adaptation. In the process of its self-cognization,
the organism becomes a relative abstraction to itself. It will to some extent produce a conceptual and
The concept of neurognosis is complex and refers to the essential genetical
component producing universal patterns of neural activity, and the experiential and
behavioural concomitants of that activity; see Laughlin and d'Aquili (1974: Chapter 5),
Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili (1990: Chapter 2) and d'Aquili et al. (1979: 8ff).
See Varela 1979 on "structural coupling," Piaget 1985 on "adequation," Bateson 1979
on "co-evolution." There is a great deal of evidence that the relative richness or
poverty of the outer world has a determinant effect upon the complexity and growth of
neural networks in ontogenesis (Diamond 1988, Renner and Rosenzweig 1987).
imaginal abstraction of its organism from the matrix of its environment (E.J. Gibson 1969, J. Gibson 1979,
Neisser 1976, Varela 1979). The organism's model of itself is defined through the emerging complexity
of its own internal organization (Piaget 1971, 1985). The principal attribute of the organism's model of
itself (including its "body image;" see Laughlin 1990b) is the production and conservation of this
self-organization while simultaneously addressing the demands of adaptation to events in its surround.
The entire system of neural models of self and world is self-generating (Laughlin and d'Aquili
1974, Varela 1979, Maturana and Varela 1980; see also Piaget 1971, 1985), and comprises our cognized
environment. While the cognized environment is how we know and experience our organism and our
world, the system of neurological transformations that produce the cognized environment is part of the
very world (our operational environment) within which we are embedded and to which we must adapt in
order to survive. The operational environment, including our own organism, may be considered
transcendental relative to our cognized environment in the sense that there is always more to learn about
the operational environment, or anything within it, than can ever be known. By implication, we are each
of us a transcendental being that is forever beyond the grasp of complete self-knowledge.
The cognized environment is to the operational environment as a map is to a landscape. This
not a static map, but rather is a living, breathing map produced by transformations in the organization of
living cells. At a more molecular level of organization, these transformations have their material reality in
patterned coordinations, or entrainments, among neurons whose initial forms are neurognostic, whose
We borrowed the concepts of cognized and operational environments from Rappaport
(1968), but have changed their meaning substantially from his usage. For further
elaboration of these concepts, see Laughlin and Brady (1978: 6), d'Aquili et al. (1979:
12ff), Rubinstein et al. (1984: 21ff), and Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili (1990).
"Entrainment" is a technical term in neurophysiology that means the linking of neural
systems into larger configurations by way of dendritic-axonic-synaptic and
endocrinological interconnections (see Hebb 1949, Davis et al. 1988). Entrainments
eventual developmental complexity will be variable and whose evocation may or may not be
may be momentary or enduring. A change in a pattern of entrainment is termed
The Empirical Modification Cycle
The process by which neural models grow into an adaptive configuration relative to the
operational environment is termed the empirical modification cycle, or EMC (Laughlin and d'Aquili 1974:
84ff; see also Pribram 1971, Neisser 1976, Arbib 1972, Powers 1973, Gray 1982, and Varela 1979 for
consonant views). This feedforward process is required for learning, and for transformation of models
confronting the flux and ultimately incomprehensible complexity of a transcendental world. This process
is one by which models are tested against the operational environment by matching anticipated patterns
against those experienced.
Behavior may or may not be a component of the EMC. In some cases the EMC may require
physical activity in order to complete its feedback loop; say in learning to play baseball or moving a chess
piece. In other cases, the EMC may complete itself without a physical component to the process; say in
solving a riddle, willing events in a dream or playing a game of blind chess.
With respect to the behavioral aspect of EMC operations in general, and play in particular, one of
the most important issues we must address is the role of behavior as a phase in the control of perception.
William T. Powers (1973) in his book, Behavior: The Control of Perception, has gone a long way in
modelling the cybernetic function of behavior relative to perception by showing that, "Behavior is the
process by which organisms control their input sensory data. For human beings, behavior is the control
of perception" (1973:xi). His thesis is as simple as it is profound, and is worth quoting at length,
especially considering its importance to our understanding of play:
All behavioral feedback is negative feedback. Positive feedback models do not behave properly.
Negative feedback can be seen as feedback control when the existence of the reference
condition [i.e., goal of perception] is recognized, for behavior always tends to resist disturbances
of the controlled quantity [i.e., perceptual variable] away from that condition. The reference
condition and the controlled quantity can be objectively defined in terms of reaction to
disturbances. ...Behavior can be seen as purposive or goal-directed if it is recognized that the
purpose of any act is to resist disturbances and that the reference condition describes the goal of
Behavior is a phase in the neurocognitive loop by which an object of interest is brought before the
perceiving subject, and kept there as long as desired despite disturbances produced by other competing
objects. It is my claim that this is as true for play behavior as for any other form of behavior. u
Metanoia As Optimization of Development
We are now in the position to say that metanoia may be defined as the subprocess of the EMC by
which an organism (1) intentionally enriches its operational environment for the purpose of optimizing the
development of its cognized environment, and (2) loosens and expands the range of alternative
structures that may eventually produce models. In other words, metanoia is an internally driven
It is our contention that Piaget (see e.g., Piaget and Inhelder 1969) placed too great an
emphasis upon the necessity for physical exploration of the world for models, or
"schemes" to develop. Some models undoubtedly require a motor component for their
development, while others do not.
enhancement of empirical modification which both loosening the adaptational stability of models and
enriches the stimuli with which the models dialogue. The operational environment may be enriched
either by increasing the information about it, or by expanding its spatiotemporal range. Incidentally, both
ways of enrichment seem to be present and operating by the time of birth in human beings (see Laughlin
Thus play behavior, as we commonly use the term, may be viewed as metanoic enrichment of the
external operational environment via behavior (Blanchard 1986). Linking play to metanoia allows us to
balance our view of play with the recognition of a transcendant context internal to the organism, as well
as the more commonly acknowledged Batesonian (Bateson 1972, 1979) "meta-communicational" context
external to and between organisms. Metanoia labels the internal frame of reference of play, as
meta-communication labels the external frame of reference of play. Certainly one function of the
metanoic frame is the "adaptive potentiation" of models to possible future responses to the operational
environment (Sutton-Smith 1977).
The enrichment studies noted earlier (Renner and Rosenzweig 1987, Diamond 1988) are crucial
to our understanding of the mechanisms of metanoia, but these studies tend to emphasize passivity of
the organism in selection of the enrichment or impoverishment of environmental complexity (it is, after all,
the researcher who manipulates the rats' environment). With play, however, we are dealing with an
active control on the part of the organism over the process of enriching novelty in the interests of the
organism's internal drive to optimize cognitive complexity (Tipps 1981). It is methodologically significant
that the external enriching activity is easily observed, but the internal loosening of adaptive constraints on
neurocognitive organization is not so easily observed. Moreover, it must be said that play is not a
necessary condition for the development of models or of the entire cognized environment. But play,
especially as conceived in our more current formulations below, is a necessary condition for optimal
development of models of the operational environment.
Play is characteristic of the EMC in species neurophysiologically complex enough for feedforward
cognitive operations to occur beyond the immediate perceptual field (i.e., all mammals, and a few of the
more intelligent birds; Wilson 1975; see also Pribram 1971, Count 1973:86). In such species, play
opens-up the transcendental possibilities of modelling the physical and social aspects of the operational
environment. Internal cellular organizations are loosened in order to better model the world, and the
transcendental possibilities of the world are opened-up for modelling. Higher species are capable, within
their neurognostic constraints, of a more or less flexible cognized environment (see Poirier and Smith
1974). The more complex and predominant the play characteristic of a species, the more complex will
be that species' cognized environment (Welker 1956a, Sutton-Smith 1967, Wilson 1975:164).
Furthermore, sufficient play in early life among these species seems to be requisite to the construction of
an adaptive cognized environment relative to the physical world (Piaget 1952, 1962, Menzel 1968) and
the social world (Baldwin and Baldwin 1973, Harlow 1969).
One mechanism of "loosening" is the release of the inhibitory influences that models
have upon competing models.
Moreover, it is requisite to an optimal acquisition of curiosity and refined motor skills in
later life (Welker 1956, Sutton-Smith 1967, Menzel et al. 1970) and adaptation to
novelty (Menzel 1963, 1966, Menzel et al. 1970, Berkson et al. 1963). Play is involved
in the production (behavioral or otherwise) of novelty, thus enriching the experience of
the organism and triggering more complex somatic, perceptual, affective and cognitive
development. The emergence of play has been shown to follow a developmental
progression in various animals (see e.g., Hoff and Nadler 1981 for gorilla). The drive to
seek novelty is intrinsic to the organism. It is known that a number of higher
vertebrates are more interested in novel objects than familiar ones; e.g., primates
(Menzel 1963, 1966), ungulates (Thorpe 1966, Darling 1964), and dolphins (Tavolga
1966). Play objects or "toys" are of intense interest to captive dolphins, who will
complete tasks with such objects as the sole reward (Pepper and Beach 1972). And
research has now shown that curiosity about novel objects among human neonates is a
predictor of intelligence later in life (Fagan 1984a, 1984b).
Play Plus Ritual Equals Game
In our earlier theory, we explained the evolution of games as an amalgamation of play and ritual,
both of which had their precursors in phylogenesis. To game is to participate in a ritual involving
metanoia (Frederickson 1960:433). Just as play provides a "context" (Piaget 1962) or "frame" (Bateson
1972) within which activities may open-up and enrich the operational environment, gaming provides a
more complex and socially standardized frame within which participants may optimize the development of
social coordination. Thus games may be considered rituals of mastery (or "models of power;"
Sutton-Smith and Roberts 1970). In our earlier work (Laughlin and McManus 1982:54-56) we showed
that the amalgamation of play and ritual into gaming was likely present in the neurognostic repertoire of
the earliest hominids.
THE CURRENT THEORY: A NEUROPHENOMENOLOGY
OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND PLAY
What we understand about ourselves and our world is the function of an organization of entrained
models that has become developmentally stabilized in the interests of adaptation. But in order for growth
to continue in neural models, their habitual patterns of entrainment must become intermittently metanoic
-- they must become loosened from the confining strictures of adaptational demands. They must
become systematically de-stabilized and open to novel re-entrainments (see Blanchard 1986, Tipps
This destabilization is actually an enhancement of communication among subsystems within the
nervous system, and between the nervous system and other bodily organs. Not only does the organism
communicate with other members of the group, there is also within the organism a communication
between models entrained to form more molar networks.
A number of researchers have seen the relationship between play and ritual (see e.g.,
Bourguignon 1979, Cheska 1978, Norbeck 1979, Kilmer 1977, Schwartzman
1978:124-125, Riner 1978, Fox 1980, Miracle 1986, n.d., Southard, Miracle and
Landwer 1989, Dunleavy and Miracle 1981, Turner 1983).
As is apparent to the most casual introspection, as well as from a reading of the
phenomenological literature, the entrainment of consciousness in either metanoic or adaptational states is
essentially intentional in organization. This means that the neural systems producing phenomenal
experience tend to organize themselves about an object (see Brentano 1874, Husserl 1977, Searle
1983, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990). The object of consciousness may be externally perceived
(the phenomenon arises in the sensorium due to exteroceptive stimulation; e.g., reading a book),
internally sensed (a phenomenon arising in the sensorium due to proprioceptive or interoceptive
stimulation; e.g., body posture, pain, hunger, thirst), or internally constituted (imaginal structures produce
fantasy, logico-linguistic structures produce thought, limbic structures produce feeling, or attention
directed at features of internal processing such as boundaries, movement, color, etc.).
It is now central to our theory that the intentional processes that construct and constellate
experience about the object are cybernetic and largely cortical in organization. Intentionality in
We mean by experience "that which arises before the subject" in consciousness (see
Dilthey 1976, Husserl 1977). This includes perception, thought, imagination, intuition,
affect and sensation. Experience, as we use the term, is a function of this intentional
dialogue, and involves the entrainment of a phenomenal field within the networks of
cells comprising the sensorium, to which are entrained the cognitive processes that
associate meaning and form in a unitary frame. It is important to emphasize that the
phenomenal attributes of the object of consciousness are themselves produced in
experience by neural models in the sensorium and are, for each moment of
consciousness, the central focus of conceptual, imaginal, affective, metabolic and motor
operations of the organism towards itself (Neisser 1976: 20ff). For example, if you look
at yourself in the mirror, the visual image of your exterior body may become the
intentional locus of thoughts ("I have to get a haircut."), feelings ("God, I'm too fat!"),
behaviors (shaving, brushing teeth), etc.
perception derives primarily from a dialogue between the prefrontal cortex (Fuster 1980, Stuss and
Benson 1986) and the sensorial cortex of the brain (see Laughlin 1988 for an elaboration of this portion of
the theory). The structures entrained to the experience of the object as a consequence of the dialogue
between prefrontal and sensorial processes may be located over a wide expanse of cortical (eg., frontal
somaesthetic structures, parietal visual attention structures, right lobe imaginal structures, left lobe
language and conceptual structures), subcortical (eg., hippocampal recognition structures, autonomic
postural structures, brain stem arousal structures, limbic emotional structures) and endocrinal (eg.,
hypothalamic and pituitary structures) tissues.
The "fields of the Lord," to which the title of this paper alludes, refers to the vast field of neural
entrainments that may potentially produce the range of human experiences of self and world, both at any
given stage and in all possible stages in the development of the nervous system. The "play" that occurs
within the fields of the Lord is, of course, the metanoic phases of more plastic re-entrainment constellated
upon the object of consciousness and upon which optimal reorganization depends.
The architecture underlying the cognized environment consists of an ever-changing pattern of
actual entrainment arising within a field of potential entrainments. This field of entrainments is defined by
three sets of architectural relations within the nervous system (Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili
1990:113): (1) the hierarchical organization of the neural structures (see e.g., Gellhorn and Kiely 1972,
Lex 1979, Csikszentmihalyi 1975, Turner 1983), (2) the bilateral asymmetry of cerebral functions (see
e.g., TenHouten 1978-79, Dobkin de Rios and Schroeder 1979, Turner 1983), and (3) the
prefrontal-sensorial intentional polarity discussed above (see e.g., Pribram 1971, Laughlin 1988). All
three sets of relations influence the quality and intensity of intentionality; i.e., the precise arrangement of
associations and functions linked to the network operating between the prefrontal processes and the
These three sets of relations therefore impact upon the exact relationship between the cognized
and operational environments, and thus upon the precise organization of play. For example, prefrontal
involvement in perception may range along a continuum from hypointentionality (weak involvement of
prefrontal processes experienced as somnolence, boredom and dulled-out states of consciousness) at
one extreme through intentionality (the normal range of attention and awareness during waking
consciousness) to hyperintentionality (intense involvement of prefrontal processes experienced as
meditative/contemplative states, absorption states, lucid dreaming, etc.) at the other extreme. It is
hyperintentionality that produces the experience of flow characteristic of states of intense concentration
and activity (Csikskentmihalyi 1975). A word of caution is appropriate here, however. Flow experience
is not synonymous with metanoia or play; rather, it may or may not be a symptom of playful
hyperintentionality. And, of course, flow may be experienced during non-play activities (Schwartzman
1978:327, Csikskentmihalyi 1981:24).
Cycles of Consciousness
One of the salient characteristics of the cognized environment is that it is experienced as a
stream of recurring realities. The pattern of entrainments that mediate the cognized environment tend to
cycle in a circadian manner, regulated by internal oscillators in the reticular activating system of the brain
stem in interaction with external zeitgebers (i.e., temporal cues in the environment, like night and day,
alarm clock, cup of coffee, etc.). Each moment of consciousness is a fresh re-entrainment of the
cognized environment, a re-entrainment that is constrained to the general limits of the organism's
circadian cycle. Re-entrainment may be experienced as anything from a continuity to a radical
transformation of experience. Because the shifting entrainment of the network mediating consciousness
manifests recurrent, gross temporal patterns, we may experience "chunks" of the cognized environment
which we recognize as distinct.
Phases and Warps of Consciousness
Experience, as we have said, is constructed within the intentional dialogue between the prefrontal
processes and the sensorial processes of the brain. The total field of this dialogue is consciousness and
awareness of bits of experience is a principle component of this field. Because the definitive
characteristic of awareness is recollection, remembering, or recognition of patterns in experience,
awareness tacitly connotes a role played by knowledge in the construction of experience. Furthermore,
since the recursive quality of experience displays detectable patterns, and may thus be cognized as such,
reflexive knowledge about consciousness itself involves knowledge of experiential episodes. If an
episode is perceived as a salient unit, then it may be cognized as distinct from other episodes, and
perhaps distinctly labelled: for example, I am "awake," "stoned," "depressed," "dreaming," "angry," "out of
my body," "playing," etc. These cognized episodes of experience, and their mediating neurocognitive
entrainments, we call phases of consciousness. The points of experiential and neurophysiological
transformation between phases we call warps of consciousness (Laughlin, McManus, Rubinstein and
Shearer 1986, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990:140-145).
Phases of consciousness recur on a circadian cycle and operate as a neurognostic alternation
between those phases that promote adaptation to the external operational environment (we call these
"being awake" in our culture) and those phases that promote mutual adaptation of tissues within the
organism (we call these "being asleep"; see McManus, Laughlin and Shearer 1990). The intentionality of
consciousness alternates between that organized about perceived objects and relations in the external
operational environment, and that organized about imagined objects and relations representing internal
processes of accommodation.
Many societies encourage their members to explore multiple phases of consciousness (through
dreams, visions, meditation states, drug trips, etc.) and interpret experiences that arise according to
culturally recognized systems of meaning. This process of exploring experiences in multiple realities
combined with social appropriation of the meaning of these experiences results in polyphasic culture (see
e.g., Poirier 1990 among the Australian Aborigines). By contrast, our own society typically gives
credence to experiences had only in the "normal" waking phase -- in the phases of consciousness
oriented primarily toward adapting to the external operational environment. We thus live in a
PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD
Recognizing the differences between polyphasic and monophasic cultures helps us to dispense
with a dualism that has distorted our understanding of play. It is relatively easy for us, belonging as most
of us do to a monophasic culture, to see how metanoia involving "play" behavior may enrich perception,
but it is as true to say that metanoia during dreaming may enrich experience to the same extent, probably
involving many of the same biological structures, and without the behavioral component.
Play and Dreaming
Piaget (see e.g., Piaget and Inhelder 1969:62) was resistant to either the idea that
dreaming is homologous to play, or the idea of innate, archetypal symbolism in the
young child, both of which are held to be the case in biogenetic structural theory (see
Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990).
In this respect we are in agreement with Parman (1979) that play and dreaming are homologous
processes for elaborating environmental conditions requisite to development. But we feel these
processes have not evolved to avoid what she calls "maladaptive aspects of synchrony" (ibid:29-30), for
there are no data to indicate that states producing synchronous EEG are dangerous or maladaptive in the
normal healthy brain. There are ample data, however, that enrichment of environmental possibilities
produces the conditions requisite for optimal neurocognitive and perceptual development. And both play
and dreaming function to enrich the environment (see McManus, Laughlin and Shearer 1990, Laughlin,
McManus and d'Aquili 1990:286,291). Perception can be enriched by moving the body in space or by
picking up a novel object. Experience may also be enriched by attending to and actively participating in
dreaming. For certain types of dreaming, as in waking play, the operations of the neurocognitive system
become metanoic in the absence of adaptive pressures. It is significant that not only do newborns and
infants play (Trevarthen and Grant 1980), they spend a lot of time in REM sleep dreaming (Roffwarg,
Muzio and Dement 1966:608). There are good data to suggest that, as with play, dreaming both
reflects developmental stages in its structure (Caring 1977, Foulkes 1982) and performs a major role in
optimizing neurocognitive development (Hobson 1988).
Play and Play Behavior
Many of the confusions attending the definition of play arise precisely because the commonsense
meaning of the term in our society denotes behavior. The question is, then, do we want to continue to
use the term ethnocentrically to refer solely to observable behavior, or are we actually interested in
understanding the entire range of metanoic processes producing the behavior. Of course, we have no
difficulties studying play behavior as long as our interest remains descriptive, but when we attempt to
explain that behavior, we run up against innumerable obstacles when we fail to account for the biological
processes that produce the play. For instance, Earl Count (1973, 1990) has insisted that behavior is
According to Roffwarg, Muzio and Dement (1966:608), newborns spend 50% of their
16 hours of sleep a day in REM stage, and 6 month old infants spend 30% of their 13
hours of sleep in REM stage.
properly considered a "symptom" of biological processes -- strictly speaking, a symptom does not evolve
or develop. Rather, it is the biological structures that evolve and develop.
Of course, we could scrap the term "play" altogether, as has been suggested by some theorists
(Berlyne 1969, Beach 1945). In my opinion, however, the concept of play is still useful, but only if we are
clear about how we are using the term in our theoretical formulations. If I have made my case here, then
the term play may validly be used in one of three possible ways: (1) as synonymous with the metanoic
processes of empirical modification that may or may not include motor activity, (2) to refer to all metanoic
processes that are entrained to motor activity, or (3) to refer solely to the motor aspect of metanoia when
that aspect occurs. According to the first option -- the one I happen to prefer -- play refers to the
metanoic organization of any phase of consciousness in which the adaptive inhibition upon alternative
entrainments is loosened and new patterns of entrainment may be engaged. In this case, we could
continue to refer to the motor component of play, when there is one, as play behavior. This would allow
us to acknowledge that descriptions of play behavior are possible without reference to the neurobiological
processes producing them, but that all explanations of play behavior must incorporate the entire play
process (see also Tipps 1981).
Play as Evocation, Fulfilment and Expression
Metanoia is a bidirectional process, for it may be internally initiated or externally triggered.
Stimuli in the environment or within the organism itself may evoke any model comprising the cognized
environment, or a model may autonomously seek fulfilment in perception. With respect to the play cycle,
the presence of a novel object (in the external environment or in a dream or other alternative phase), or a
playful conspecific, may trigger exploratory activity on the part of the organism (this is the evocative mode
of play; similar to what Piaget liked to call "accommodation;" Piaget and Inhelder 1969:6), or the organism
may seek an object or a companion it desires; i.e., a toy, prop, playmate or scenario (the fulfilling mode of
play; similar to Piaget's "assimilation"). In addition, play may result in symbolic play behavior which
communicates information to others; for example role playing in social play or miming an event
experienced in an alternative phase (the expressive mode of play; see Bateson 1972:178, 1978).
PLAY AND HIGHER PHASES OF CONSCIOUSNESS
An advantage in conceiving of play as a metanoic phase is that we can more easily see that the
functions of play change as the neurocognitive system matures. This is especially so for the higher
mammalian species, like the chimpanzee, wolf, dolphin and human, among whom play behavior
continues into adulthood. Although interest in the study of play is often focused upon early life (e.g.,
Schwartzman 1978), this continuity of play throughout life suggests that play exercises a significant
function in optimizing development, not only in childhood, but at each and every level of maturation.
There have been numerous stage theories pertaining to the maturation of consciousness
throughout life, including those of Gregory Bateson, Jean Piaget, and Erik Erikson. The theory most
useful to us at the moment, however, is that of Abraham Maslow who spent much of this career studying
advanced development among humans, and who operationalized advanced stages more clearly than
most. He spoke of a hierarchy of needs and readily admitted that relatively few individuals in any society
ever reach the higher levels of personal growth, due to the press of adaptation and the distortions
imposed by enculturation (Maslow 1971:26).
The two most immature stages are those centered upon satisfaction of physical needs (like food,
air, sex), and the need for social bonding and security. The third stage is that of self-esteem which
involves satisfaction of needs to master activities in the environment. Metanoia operating in the two
lower stages would produce physical and social play, respectively, while metanoia in the third stage may
produce mastery of sports and other advanced games.
The two higher levels of development Maslow called self-actualization and transcendence
(Maslow 1968, 1971:280-295). These two involve the satisfaction of "metaneeds" or "being needs" that
are derived from a stance of sufficiency and autonomy, and that may be distinguished from needs
characteristic of lower stages in development that derive from deficiency and dependency (so-called
D-needs). A self-actualizing person is one who is fairly healthy and whose energies are focused on
satisfying the needs for justice, wholeness, beauty, optimal self-knowledge, etc. Pursuit of these needs
may produce "peak" experiences of creativity, ecstasy, rapture, etc., often given religious interpretations.
The transcending person is one who requires transpersonal experiences for optimal growth. He or she
encounters "peak" experiences more readily.
The sense one has from Maslow's scheme is that each stage is produced by a reorganization of
the nervous system that must complete itself before development of a higher organization and its needs
may emerge and be satisfied. We have developed the view elsewhere that many polyphasic cultures at
least tacitly acknowledge a hierarchy of needs in the sense that they encourage activities (dramas, rituals,
games, performances, etc.) leading to metanoic phases of consciousness which optimize individual
development into the range of self-actualization and transcendence (Laughlin et al. 1986, Laughlin,
McManus and d'Aquili 1990).
This is the aspect of metanoia and play that emerges most clearly in the study of esoteric
shamanic and religious practices cross-culturally (see e.g., Norbeck 1974, 1975, 1979, Bourguignon
1979). This is so because the kind of play behavior required for the culturally guided realization of higher
phases of consciousness often takes the form usually recognized by anthropologists as ritual. As Frank
Manning (1977:156) notes, it is the playful quality of rituals that evokes the "otherworldliness" of
polyphasic experiences. For example, this aspect is dramatically evident in the practice of masking in
ritual performance (e.g., Caillois 1961:87-97, Abrahams 1986, Young-Laughlin and Laughlin 1988), a
once wide-spread cultural phenomenon that provides a classic case of transformation from imitation to
realization (or in Caillois' terms, from "simulation" to "vertigo").
Play and the Hierarchy of Needs
I would like to offer just two of the many possible examples of "play" in the transcendental sense
that I encountered during the course of fieldwork among various contemplative traditions. The first
example involves intentional metanoia during the waking phase of consciousness, accompanied by
behavior, and the other during the dream phases involving little or no behavior. I hope in this way to
illustrate the essential homology between metanoic phases whether or not there is behavior involved.
Maulavi (Sufi Dancing). Sufis will ritually dance in order to realize in direct experience a state of
mind that is at one with the totality and flow of the universe. The task in the dance is to spin around to
music while visualizing a central crystal-form axis running up the center of the body and colorful streams
of energy flowing out of the palms. The tempo of the music is slow at first, then it speeds up until one is
spinning quite rapidly, and then it slows down again toward the end. When I did this, there reached a
point in the dance when concentration intensified and the consciousness shifted to the awareness of the
whole universe spinning around the axis of my body -- it was the world that was spinning, not me. The
experience was associated with rapture and a sense of unity with the world. When concentration was
broken by thoughts about the experience, I immediately lost balance and fell down. The whole
adventure was very playful and involved behavior. It is in fact the quickest route to flow I have yet
Tibetan Dream yoga. Tibetan yogis are encouraged to explore their dream life by transforming
their bodies in their imagination into the body of a deity. While imagining themselves as the deity, they
enter the dream phases during the night, maintaining as much awareness as they can muster. Among
the several techniques I learned while working on the dream yoga (see Chang 1963:88-94), two were
particularly effective. One was to concentrate intensely (i.e., produce hyperintentionality) upon a radiant
ruby sphere about the size of a pea in my throat while drifting off to sleep. This accentuated awareness
of the lucid imagery arising in the hypnagogic warp that is normally not noticed by a person falling to
sleep. I was eventually able to maintain a flow of rich imagery while completely conscious for up to a half
hour or more, often while experiencing intense rapture and loss of both ego-awareness and awareness of
the external world.
The other technique I "played with" during dream yoga work was to build a plywood sleeping box
(4 feet on the sides and 3 feet high) cushioned inside with foam rubber. I slept sitting upright in the box
for three months in order to break the conditioned association of laying down with unconsciousness
during sleep. This is a traditional Tibetan tantric technique and was a difficult one to accomplish, for the
desire of the body to lay down was great. Yet the practice did eventually effect a significant increase in
the awareness, lucidity and active participation in dreaming. To some extent I could decide where to go
and what objects to attend while in the dream. As difficult as the practice was, I very much had the
sense of playing with and within dreams, and was far more mindfully and wilfully active as a player than in
normal dreaming (see Hillman 1987, n.d.). In both techniques behavior was insignificant to the "play"
with imagery essential to the yoga -- the ruby sphere practice involved no behavior while the sleeping box
involved only the re-conditioning of sleep-related body posture.
A number of conclusions relative to ongoing problems in the study of play are implied by our
theory in its current form:
1. Work versus play. As has been noted by several authorities, the dichotomy between "work"
and "play" is a false one (Schwartzman 1978:5, Blanchard 1983, 1986, Stevens 1980). The dichotomy is
an ethnocentric artifact of western industrial society and proves to be of little use to a theory of play
(Schwartzman 1977:29), especially a theory that requires the consideration of the internal "workings" of
the organism that is "playing." As we have seen, play is developmentally "serious business." Play is the
product of operations inherently designed to loosen the adaptational strictures on re-entrainment and
optimize the development of the cognized environment. Antithetical to Caillois' (1961:10) and Huizinga's
(1970:32) views, play may well produce (may be intended to produce, as in "playing with an idea")
"serious" material objects (say, paintings) or wealth (an invention or book that makes money, the
proceeds from gambling). In any event, the oft noted paradox attending the concept of play -- that
play is simultaneously separate from reality and yet somehow useful (see Csikszentmihalyi 1981) -- is
only apparent. In point of fact, the "reality" to which animals with brains respond is a cognized reality, a
reality constructed within the field of entrainments grown within their nervous systems. Play is a
metanoic transformation of that internally generated reality, and an opening-up of alternative ways of
knowing the operational environment (the "real" reality "out there," including the organism constructing the
cognized environment, itself). Play is a very "serious" activity of the nervous system, but one released
from the also "serious," but constraining demands of moment-to-moment adaptation.
2. Creativity. All metanoic phases are potentially creative in the sense that they may produce
increased novelty in the operational environment, new patterns of entrainment within the cognized
environment, or both (see Feitelson 1972, Feitelson and Ross 1973, Dansky 1986). Whether or not
metanoia results in new play behaviors (new games, patterns of adaptation, etc.), innovative
interpretations of cosmology, or novel artifacts (art, tools, etc.) will depend upon the conditions of play.
3. Institutionalization of play. Because metanoia and play behavior are inherently creative,
society has a stake in controlling the extent, domains, goals and products of play. The narrower the
confines of adaptation required by a culture, the more the society will extend control over play in order to
control unintended creativity. Institutionalization of play and play behavior (as is implied in Caillois's
1961 movement from "paidia" to "ludus") may operate to guide, enhance or thwart the metanoia essential
to play. Games may on the one hand increase novelty by increasing the complexity of the operational
environment (say through increasing the complexity of rules), and on the other hand may become
institutionalized into activities which for some "players" are no longer playful (say in some professional
sports). This is always the danger in institutionalizing rituals. Just as Catholics may go through the
motions of the Mass without realizing the essential experience of the Eucharist, people may "play" games
without entering or evoking a metanoic state.
4. Play as Penetration. Ritualized and institutionalized play may be socially encouraged in
order to evoke the metanoic states requisite to intended, discrete developments. This may be the case
at every level of maturation, and is especially evident in the symbolic play leading to higher phases of
consciousness (Turner 1982, 1983, Turner and Bruner 1986, Laughlin et al. 1986, Laughlin, McManus
and d'Aquili 1990). We would say that play and play-related symbolism "penetrates" to intended
entrainments while the nervous system is in a requisite metanoic state.
This penetration is apparent in the examples of Maulavi and Tibetan dream yoga discussed
above. The cultural intent of both practices is the realization of phenomenal, affective and intuitive
experiences upon which the verification and vivification of the respective cosmological views depends.
Full participation in these practices requires metanoia. There must be a loosening of the habitual
patterns of view allowing for a warp of consciousness to occur which will re-entrain the structures of
consciousness into a novel pattern. In the case of Maulavi, the dance sets the stage for the realization of
flow and totality. In the case of the dream yoga, the practitioner enters a previously unknown domain of
rich symbolic experience that may inform the consciousness about its own essential nature. Both
techniques require hyperintentionality to produce the requisite transformations of consciousness, and
thus both inevitably lead to the experience of absorption and flow.
The intended experiences very likely will not arise if the requisite metanoia and playfulness within
the ritual activity are absent. Thus in a very real, yet metaphorical sense, maturation of consciousness
beyond a certain point may not be possible unless the practitioner is truly "at play in the fields of the
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This paper was the keynote address delivered at the 1990 annual meeting of The
Association for the Study of Play, Las Vegas, Nevada. Charles Laughlin is with the
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario,
CANADA K1S 5B6. The author wishes to acknowledge the helpful dialogues he has
had with John McManus and Susan Sample.