After the death of Isaac Newton — a mythic figure even in his own lifetime — the poet Alexander Pope wrote the following epitaph for him:
“Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said “Let Newton be” and all was light.”
When you read something like this about a figure of history, it becomes hard to imagine them as mortal. Most of us don’t invent calculus or redefine optics in our 20s. We certainly don’t walk around laying down new foundations for the study of nature.
But mortal they were. And as fascinating as it is to deify them, it’s perhaps just as interesting to imagine what they may have been like in person.
We know that Newton was both humble and arrogant. When facing the laws of nature, he approached his work with reserved caution. When dealing with his rivals, however, he could be petty and vindictive — not exactly the stoic image of perfection that first comes to mind.
We know that in spite of his great fame, he lived a mostly solitary life, not too focused on developing his interpersonal relationships, perhaps even dying a virgin. It makes you wonder how different the world may have been had he been more tempted by those very normal human interests.
The most telling thing about him, however, I think, comes from a reflection he supposedly shared with a friend about his life right before he died:
“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
I like this because it shows you the child in him, the one we can recognize in our own reflection if we pay attention. But more so, I like it because, from this human image, we can take out something for ourselves, something that I think is becoming more relevant today.
The Evolutionary Purpose of Play
On one end, the idea that Newton lived such a solitary life brings about a slight sadness that I can’t immediately shake. But then, when I read his own description of how it looked from the inside, it fades away.
The activity of play is universal among all human cultures that have been studied. We can define it in various ways. When the idea is brought up, each of us imagines something slightly different, but at a core level, it’s clear that we are all still talking about roughly the same thing.
It’s an activity we do just to do it, at least on the surface. It’s fun and exciting, and the fact that it doesn’t feel like it’s stressful because we’re associating it with some future reward seems to make it more free, more honest.
Scientists, of course, disagree a fair bit about both how to define play and what the evolutionary purpose of it is, but without getting bogged down by the details, our simple definition isn’t too far detached from any truth, and in terms of purpose, it seems to be agreed that it serves to either train us physically, socially, or cognitively.
In this sense, play is an act of learning. More specifically, it’s a low-cost way to explore the world in order to obtain high-value advantages. To push it even further, it’s a search for the truth of the reality that we want to effectively inhabit as we live and as we age over time.
When you are born into a particular cultural environment, you don’t yet have all the tools to make sense of it. You have to do the work to figure out where the boundaries are, what norms are accepted, and the different skills that will be required from you as you become a member of society.
Like Newton, as a child, you walk around picking up different pebbles and shells, studying them, identifying their relationships to the surrounding world and to other people, and then based on that, you start to store information that is consistent with your experience as to guide future experiences.
The key thing to note about play is that because it isn’t entirely purposeful, the boundaries are blurred, which then allows you to redefine them so you can see something new, something that provides value in a way you may not have realized by acting out of duty.
Mixing Exploration and Exploitation
The most obvious thing about this kind of fun is that it’s more common in children than it is in adults. And it makes sense: By the time you are an adult, you have mostly done the work required to figure out your surroundings.
Based on this relationship to play, we can roughly divide life into two realms of existence: a period dominated by exploration and a period dominated by exploitation. You spend the first part of your life exploring, seeing, and understanding, but once some of it has sunk to a satisfactory level, you start to exploit the fruits growing on the foundation you have laid.
By Newton’s analogy, after a certain period, you have picked up all the pebbles and shells you are likely to play with, and you walk away from the ocean content to just continue rolling those same ones over in your hands.
For the physical lessons born out of play, this makes sense. After a certain point, you have learned how to use your body and you don’t need to test it in different ways throughout your life. You know how to run, and you know how to play a sport you love, and it makes sense to just keep doing those things over time, with nothing lost.
There is, however, a problem when pursuing this same explore-exploit pattern in the social and the cognitive aspects of our life. Today, the social and cognitive aspects are far more complex than before. Our culture is evolving at a rate which means that if you don’t keep up with it, then you no longer understand the truth of that reality as you live in it.
In a world that doesn’t change too fast, a brief childhood of exploration would give you all the information you would need to deal with the various norms around you and with the decision-making patterns that are likely to arise. But in a culture that is increasingly networked, doubling the amount of information produced every few years, there can no longer be a difference between the exploration and the exploitation phase.
Newton’s search for truth moved him from pebble to shell throughout his whole life, but it didn’t mean that he left the old ones behind for the new ones. He gave exploitation his due attention, while also playfully keeping an eye out for the hidden truths in the peripheries.
Not making room for play in modern adult life is a strategic disadvantage. Exploration and exploitation are no longer distinct. They are continually co-evolving as the world quickly unfolds around us.
Dealing With a Larger Terrain
Today, culture is more complex, information is more abundant, and our collective environment covers a greater terrain of reality.
Play is how we map out this terrain. Traditionally, it was enough to simply spend our childhood and some early parts of our youth having our fun, without following the usual rules, without being too constrained by duty and routine, to make sense of everything.
This is no longer the case. Our environments are no longer static. They’re dynamic in a way that means that if you don’t keep up, you’re essentially not living in the same social and cognitive reality as those around you.
While in the past exploration was a distinct phase from exploitation, today, they have merged. You can no longer get away with spending the first few decades of your life playing and then dedicating the last few to work. Play and work have to occupy the same range.
To many of us, the idea of play in this way is so foreign that even if all of this makes sense, the question remains: What does play look like when you are, say, 30 or 40 or 50? And the answer is that it looks like a space of time, simply left to be dictated by curiosity beyond what you do out of habit — that could mean anything from taking an improv class to simply reading more.
The pebbles and the shells Newton picked up gave us the elementary laws of nature that we have since built our understanding of reality on. They led us to uncover the knowledge in front of us so that we could better master our surrounding environment.
In the 21st-century, playfulness won’t just remain a memory of childhood. It will be the foundation that we use to construct and validate the truths of our ever-changing reality.
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