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Sugar Brain

Disclaimer: This is about how food affects the brain. It is not health advice. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet.

Your Expensive Brain

Your brain is an expensive organ. Despite being only 2% of your body weight, it consumes about 20% of your calories.1 Without sufficient calories, it cannot run at full capacity. Your brain needs food to fuel its functioning, its repair, and its growth, so not eating is not an option.

But what sort of calories does the brain want?


The fuel that normally runs your brain is glucose. All carbohydrates, whether they are bread, bean, blueberry, or broccoli, get broken down into glucose in the body. Since, under most circumstances, your brain needs glucose for energy, you must eat some kind of food with carbohydrate calories in it. This includes all fruits, vegetables, grains, potatoes, and legumes.1

When fuel levels drop in your brain, your capacity for clear thinking and careful decision-making is diminished. As Teresa Aubele and Susan Reynolds explain in an article titled “Have You Fed Your Brain Today?” published in Psychology Today, this is because

the frontal lobes, the area of the brain that acts like the CEO of you, are particularly sensitive to falling glucose levels. … Researchers at Roehampton University in England noted that, ‘When your glucose level drops, the symptom is confused thinking.’ … Another early sign of a glucose drop is a change in mood, irritability, and overall grumpiness.2

Aubele and Reynolds also point out that the “brain doesn’t store glucose, and thus needs a fresh batch each day to fire it up,”2 which is why breakfast is such an important meal for academic success. When you break the fast of a night’s sleep with a meal, you’re refilling the empty gas tank of your brain. Studies show that people who skip breakfast have diminished concentration and problem-solving abilities.2

Alternative Fuel

But wait, you might be thinking, can’t your brain run on fat? Absolutely. When deprived of glucose, the body will switch into ketosis – a state in which your primary fuel is ketones, which are derived from fat. 3 Ketosis can be advantageous in certain athletic situations and for certain health problems, and it may even improve cognitive function.3

However, in practice, getting your brain and body to use fat as fuel is hard to pull off. Entering and remaining in ketosis is very challenging and should only be done under the supervision of a physician.3 For most people, most of the time, glucose will be the brain’s primary fuel source. Therefore, to be at your best, you need to eat sufficient carbohydrate calories.

There is, however, an important caveat you need to be aware of:


No Sugar!

Anytime your body detects a high concentration of glucose in the blood stream – the sort of thing that happens after you drink a glass of fruit juice or eat some candy – it sees this as dangerous and releases insulin to get the sugar out of the bloodstream.1 The glucose is then stored for later use as fat, which the brain cannot easily use.1 The insulin response deprives your brain of glucose, resulting in what is known as a “sugar crash.”1

Admittedly, “no sugar” is a tall order, but we don’t have to completely cut out sugar in order to experience a brain-health benefit. At the end of this article, we’ll look at some reasonable, realistic techniques for reducing sugar consumption. For now, let’s explore the science of how sugar affects the brain.

Also, when I say “sugar,” I’m including corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, barley malt, dextrose, maltose, rice syrup, and the dozens of other additives that are really just sugar masquerading under a different name. The ingredients list might hide what’s in the product, but the nutritional information won’t: It will tally up all of these things under “sugars.”

Slow it Down

To properly fuel your brain, you have to eat foods with carbohydrates that don’t dump all their glucose into the bloodstream at once. Instead of sugar and simple carbohydrates, eat complex carbohydrates that digest slowly. “The healthier the carbohydrates you give your body, the better your body will be able to stabilize blood sugar levels and elevate brain function.”2

Foods that are high in sugar or simple carbohydrates are known as high-glycemic foods, whereas foods that have slowly-digesting carbohydrates are known as low-glycemic foods. Because they have fiber, whole grains, beans, and lentils have a better glycemic index than refined grains like white rice or white bread.

Whether a child eats high-glycemic meals or low-glycemic meals turns out to be a big deal. A 2015 article published in Clinical Pediatrics noted that:

In 2007, Benton et al studied the effects of 3 different breakfasts with either low, medium, or high glycemic index in normal, healthy children in school. When children received breakfasts with a low glycemic index, scores on memory, attention, and time spent on tasks were significantly better than scores after the medium- or high-glycemic-index breakfasts.4

Vegetables are important to eat because of their micronutrients, but many vegetables don’t have a lot of calories, so you can eat a lot of broccoli and not get much fuel for your brain. Starchy roots like carrots, beets, and sweet potatoes have more glucose to offer.

Fruits, too, are valuable because of their micronutrients, but they often have a high glycemic index because they contain a great deal of naturally occurring sugar. Fruit juice is even more problematic because it is digested so quickly. Combining fruits with foods that slow down digestion is good strategy for mitigating their sugar load.

Three things slow down the absorption of carbohydrates: fiber, fat, and protein. Foods that are high in fiber, fat, and protein take longer for the body to break down, slowing digestion.1 The result is that carbohydrates eaten at the same time break down more slowly, releasing their glucose into the bloodstream more gradually.1 This gives your brain a steady supply of fuel and decreases the likelihood of a crash-producing insulin response.1

My personal brain-fuel program is to eat a high-fat, high-protein breakfast, followed immediately by fruit and something high in fiber. I typically don’t feel hungry again for about five hours and experience a very steady level of mental energy. When I finally do eat lunch, it is most often coconut curry loaded with veggies, combining fat, protein, and complex carbohydrates.

Can Sugar Make You Dumber?

We’ve established that sugar causes an insulin response that deprives your brain of energy, but are there other negative effects as well? The answer appears to be yes.

Research out of the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that sugar forms free radicals in the brain’s membrane and compromises nerve cells’ ability to communicate. This could have repercussions in how well we remember instructions, process ideas, and handle our moods, says Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, Ph.D., author of the UCLA study.5

Other research has found a link between sugar consumption and current memory problems, as well as a link between sugar consumption and dementia in old-age.6 This may be related to the finding that high-sugar diets reduce “the production of a brain chemical known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF),” which is critical for learning and memory.7 BDNF also promotes neurogenesis,8 meaning that eating a lot of sugar will inhibit the growth of new brain cells.

Aubele and Reynolds add that “researchers at the Salk Institute in California found that high glucose levels resulting from quick, easy sugar intake slowly but surely damage cells everywhere in the body, especially those in the brain.”9

Most people are well-aware of how unhealthy sugar is for the body. Our nation suffers from an epidemic of obesity, type-2 diabetes, and heart disease, and sugar is high on the list of culprits. But surprisingly few people are aware of the problems sugar poses for the brain. The next time you’re weighing the pros and cons of eating a candy bar, you ought to consider the damage it does to your brain in addition to the harm it does to your body.

A Surprise Consensus in the Fad-Diet Debates

There is a wide range of opinions out there regarding what people should and shouldn’t eat: Whole-grain or low-carb? High-fat or low-fat? Paleo or vegetarian? Despite all the disagreement, no one is advising that we eat more sugar. No one.

Is Sugar Like an Addictive Drug?

Yes. Neuroscience research shows that when people eat sugary foods, particular areas of their brains activate – the same brain areas that light up when a drug addict consumes his substance of choice.5 Sugar also triggers the release of dopamine and serotonin – the same neurotransmitters released in the brain of a drug addict when he gets high.5 Many researchers are now calling for the government to regulate sugar the same way they regulate drugs.5

However, as Gary Taubes details in The Case Against Sugar, sugar producers, including corn-syrup producers, have powerful lobbyists to influence Congress,10 so I wouldn’t count on change coming from above anytime soon. Avoiding sugar is something we’ll have to take into our own hands.

So How Bad Is It?

Pretty bad.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average American consumes 156 pounds of added sugar per year. That’s five grocery store shelves loaded with 30 or so one pound bags of sugar each.  If you find that hard to believe, that’s probably because sugar is so ubiquitous in our diets that most of us have no idea how much we’re consuming.7

According to the University of California, San Francisco, food producers currently use a stunning 61 different names for sugar on food labels, and about 75% of packaged foods sold in supermarkets contain one or more of these added sugars.11 Furthermore, the products you love might have a lot more sugar than you think. A 16 ounce vanilla latte, for instance, typically contains your entire daily allowance of sugar.5

And our sugar consumption has escalated quickly in recent years:

The average American consumes somewhere between two to three pounds of sugar each week. Over the last twenty years, our national sugar consumption exploded from 26 pounds to 135 pounds of sugar—per person—annually. Compare that to sugar consumption in the late 1800s, when the average consumption was five pounds per person-per year.9

To give you a visual, here’s what the average American consumes each month:

It’s hard to imagine that eating over 10 of those bags per year is a good idea. We have a serious problem.

What About Sugar Alternatives?

“Natural” sugar, such as honey, isn’t significantly healthier than processed sugars.9

And fake sugar, for a variety of reasons, isn’t the answer.9

Many recovering sugar-junkies turn to diet soda or other products with artificial sweeteners, because they satisfy cravings for sweetness without the sugar. This, it turns out, is a poor choice. Artificial sweeteners can actually make a sugar addiction worse, not better, and are themselves addictive.12

Artificial sweeteners overstimulate our taste buds, desensitizing us to sweetness. Often the result is that

people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find less intensely sweet foods, such as fruit, less appealing and unsweet foods, such as vegetables, downright unpalatable. In other words, use of artificial sweeteners can make you shun healthy, filling, and highly nutritious foods, while consuming more artificially flavored foods with less nutritional value. Artificial sweeteners may play another trick, too. Research suggests that they may prevent us from associating sweetness with caloric intake. As a result, we may crave more sweets, tend to choose sweet food over nutritious food, and gain weight.12

A Little Help From Healthy Fat

Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, especially those with a high amount of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) help protect the brain from sugar’s damaging effects.13 “Still planning to throw caution to the wind and indulge in a hot-fudge sundae? Then also eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, walnuts and flaxseeds, or take a daily DHA capsule.”13

A Culture of Sugar

Sugar is deeply ingrained in our culture. Desserts are served at most parties because we believe that’s part of being a good host. Nearly every holiday we celebrate has its own special, sugary treats. We even have one holiday – Halloween – which revolves almost entirely around candy.

Given all that, reducing our sugar intake is sure to be an uphill battle, but it is a battle we can win.

To avoid sugar, we need to read food labels carefully and try to choose foods that have little or no added sugar. Avoiding processed foods is a good rule of thumb. We’ll be better off buying whole-food ingredients and cooking for ourselves.

And we need to change the culture, one social gathering at a time.

Realistic Sugar-Reduction Techniques

Okay, let’s be real. Completely avoiding sugar is next-to-impossible in the modern world, and a lifetime of sugar-eating habits aren’t going to dissolve as easily as a cube of white crystals in your coffee. As I said earlier, complete abstinence is not required. Any reduction in sugar consumption is beneficial for brain health, not to mention physical health.

When trying to avoid sugar, perfectionism will actually be counterproductive. It’s more helpful to have a spectrum mindset and remember that every step in the right direction counts. Every piece of candy not eaten is progress.

Remember that behavioral change is slow and hard, but absolutely possible. In time, your brain will rewire. Recognize that slip-ups are inevitable, and you’ll have an easier time making a shift away from sugar if you give yourself permission to be human.

With all that in mind, let’s look at some concrete ways you can help yourself and your family reduce sugar consumption:

  • Start small and the transition will be less harsh. Gradually reduce the amount and frequency of sugar consumption.
  • Have “cheat days” – days where you allow yourself to indulge freely. It’s common for people to choose one day each week as a cheat day. It’s also common for people to make holidays cheat days, since these days are so often filled with desserts. Over time, though, the frequency of cheat days should decrease, and the severity of binging on cheat days should diminish.
  • Stop buying desserts, candy, sodas, and fruit juice at the grocery store. If it’s in the house, it’s a lot harder to resist. Exercise willpower once – while at the store – to avoid having to use your willpower constantly at home.
  • Swap out fruit for dessert. My own experience was that after a month of not eating desserts or added sugar, fruit started to taste better than candy or cake.

I’m not perfect about this. I still eat my mom’s apple pie and her famous Christmas cookies. And once in a while, dark chocolate finds its way into my shopping cart. But I usually do decline dessert, and I never keep any significant amount of sweets at home. Over time, avoiding sugar has become easier and easier.

While the gradual approach works very well for most people, it should be understood that a significant minority of people are true sugar addicts, and will probably have to quit cold turkey. Some sugar addicts are quite aware of the hold sugar has on their psyche, while others may need a professional psychological diagnosis. As with drug addicts, sugar addicts will probably find more success if they quit completely, once and for all.

The Bittersweet Truth

I hope by now you’ve seen that sugar is a serious issue for neurological health and academic performance, and I hope you’ll guide your family towards a diet with less sugar.

Sweets, it turns out, aren’t so sweet after all.


Works Cited

1 MacDonald, Matthew. Your Brain: The Missing Manual. O’Reilly Media, 2008.

2 Aubele, Teresa, and Susan Reynolds. “Have You Fed Your Brain Today?” Psychology Today. September 7, 2011.

3 (Tools of Titans)

4 Stevens, Laura J., et al. “Amounts of Artificial Food Dyes and Added Sugars in Foods and Sweets Consumed by Children.” Clinical Pediatrics. 2015, Vol. 54(4) 309-321.

5 “Your Brain on Sugar.” WebMD.

6 Reas, Emilie. “Sugar May Harm Brain Health: High levels of blood glucose are linked to memory impairments.” Scientific American. June 12, 2014.

7 DiSalvo, David. “What Eating Too Much Sugar Does to Your Brain.” Forbes. April 1, 2012.

8 Perlmutter, David, MD. “Neurogenesis: How to Change Your Brain.” The Huffington Post. November 2, 2010.

9 Reynolds, Susan, and Teresa Aubele. “Why a Sugar High Leads to a Brain Low.” Psychology Today. October 18, 2011.

10 Taubes, Gary. The Case Against Sugar. Knopf, 2016.

11 “Hidden in Plain Sight.” University of California, San Francisco.

12 Strawbridge, Holly. “Artificial sweeteners: sugar-free, but at what cost?” Harvard Health Publications. July 16, 2012.

13 Schmidt, Elaine. “This is your brain on sugar: UCLA study shows high-fructose diet sabotages learning, memory.” UCLA Newsroom, May 15, 2012.

Image Credits

Title Image: Girdwood, Andrew. “Bloody brain cakes.” Creative Commons 2.0. Text added.

Empty: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Coconut: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Complex Carbs: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Slow Down: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Curry: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Boy with Candy Cane: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Sugar Bag: Loper, Chris.

Honey: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Salmon: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Pumpkins: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Berries: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

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I love games. I play everything from the nerdiest strategy games to the silliest improv games, from bocce to table tennis, from Jenga to Scrabble. Games have always been compelling to me, so much so that at times I’ve slipped into various video-game addictions. (These days, I usually avoid video games because of my tendency to get addicted to them.) New games are especially compelling to me because they offer a fresh challenge and feel like an exploration of uncharted territory.

I am driven to play games because they are fun, but fun isn’t the only value games offer. Playing games is a powerful way to improve intelligence, creativity, and social skills. Games also cultivate a variety of specific abilities that are useful in the real world. Play is part of human nature. We were born to play, and play is good for us.

And play isn’t limited to games. I also enjoy doing puzzles, juggling, singing, and dancing. Sports, art, music, and theater are all valuable forms of play as well. Play can just be something unstructured and silly, like a water fight.

The Origins of Play

Of course, humans are not the only animals who play. We’re all familiar with cats and dogs playing, but did you know that most mammals, some birds, some fish, and even ants play? Animals play for many reasons. Some play to become stronger and more coordinated. Some play to practice hunting. Others play to solidify social bonds. Others play to practice working as a team. The experience of play as “fun” is the neurological reward that motivates animals, including ourselves, to get these benefits.1

Richard Restak and Scott Kim write in The Playful Brain: The Surprising Science of How Puzzles Improve Your Mind that

If a rat is raised in an ‘enriched’ environment – for example, a cage full of toys and gym-like equipment, along with other rats to play with – its brain will develop a greater number of nerve cell connections (synapses) and increased nerve fiber (dendritic) complexity, especially in the hippocampus, where memory is initially encoded. As a result of possessing more complex brain circuitry, environmentally enriched rats perform better on tests measuring learning and spatial memory. … Enhanced brain development and performance occurs in monkeys, cats, and a host of other animals raised in enriched environments.2

For ethical reasons, we do not perform controlled experiments of this kind on human babies, but there is strong evidence that the same principle does apply to our own species. Comparing orphans who were adopted with orphans who were not,

neuroscientists have found striking deficiencies in intellectual and emotional development among infants raised in institutions compared with infants of the same age who are transferred from the institutions into adoptive families. The brains of the children who remain in the institutions have fewer connections linking different parts of the cortex as well as reduced chemical activity, especially in the frontal and temporal areas—two sites important in IQ, memory, and other cognitive functions.2

The researchers think that one of the causes of this difference is the fact that children raised in adoptive families have far more play opportunities than children raised in orphanages.2

Play is how children learn basic skills that they use to navigate the world, making it a classic example of natural learning. They learn to observe, explore, imagine, pretend, and experiment, and they do this through play.3 That’s why, in nature, it is often only the young of a species which plays regularly (wolf cubs, for example). Humans benefit from play at any age, but play is especially important for children.

“Play is not frivolous. Play is essential.”  —Isabel Behncke Izquierdo, primatologist4

Playing Your Way to a Stronger Brain

Restak Kim explain that “By learning more, doing more, and experiencing more, we form greater numbers of circuits within the brain and thereby increase its functional power. As a result, we become smarter, faster, and more astute.”2 In other words, the brain is like a bunch of muscles, and play is a form of brain exercise.

Most games require us to use logic, to plan ahead, and to quickly adjust to the behavior of others. Games like Set teach you to quickly recognize patterns. Many games, such as Gobblet, exercise working memory, which makes it stronger.5 Many games involve “spotting trends, drawing connections, and discerning the big picture.”6 Play improves our decision-making ability.7 Play requires executive function. This is the sort of dynamic intelligence that we all need to thrive in the modern world.

There are a number of games that teach specific skills without feeling like learning. People find themselves motivated to master these skills because they are motivated to win (or at least join in the fun). There are, of course, games that require math, language skills, or spatial reasoning. There are also games that require persuasion, interpretation, or an understanding of metaphors and symbolism. If there’s a specific ability you’d like to improve, look for games that require that skill.

However, Stuart Brown, co-author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul contends that play isn’t so much about preparation for specific future tasks as it is about general brain training; play is simply a key element of healthy psychological development.8

Playing new games is also an inherently growth-minded activity because you always start as a beginner. You’ve never played the game, after all. So you get to prove to yourself that you can learn and improve, all while having fun!

And although we are motivated to play because play is fun, the happiness we get from play comes with its own benefits. Numerous studies show that increasing our happiness has a positive effect on our intelligence, our creativity, and our ability to handle difficulties and setbacks.9 So if the only reason you play is because it makes you happier, you’re likely to experience increased success as a side-effect anyway.

Sometimes the benefits of play are intentional, as with “brain games,” but, more often than not, the benefits are unplanned or unexpected, as I discovered while solving this jigsaw puzzle.

In her Atlantic article, “In Defense of Play,” Alison Gopnik points out that, while we can acknowledge the benefits of play, we shouldn’t make that the focus:

American parents often act as if play is only valuable if it will produce predictable outcomes.

This isn’t just true about our attitude toward child’s play. We also tend to treat adult play—sport or art or science—as a disguised form of work, something that only has value because it eventually leads to some practical end—physical health or moral uplift.

The irony is that over the long term, both children’s and adults’ play does lead to practical benefits. But it does this precisely because the people who play, whether they are children or adults, aren’t aiming at those practical benefits. The fundamental paradox of play is that in order to be able to reach a variety of new goals in the long run, you have to actively turn away from goal seeking in the short run.

… we should give children the resources and space to play, and do so without insisting that play will have immediate payoffs.10

In other words, if you turn play into a skills-targeted homework assignment, it’s no longer play.


Creativity is a skill that we can learn and improve with practice.11 Many games, such as charades, Dixit, and Snake Oil, teach creativity and provide opportunities to practice it, and nearly all games require improvisation of some kind. The more you practice improvising on the spot, the better you become at it.

Games that require creativity teach us to think independently and force us to take risks, increasing our confidence. Sometimes this creativity is done alone, and other times it’s done in teams, which parallels creativity in the real world.7

“The best inventors are playful. The best players are inventive.” – Dan Pink6

Gopnik explains how certain types of play directly strengthen our imagination muscles:

In the distinctively human activity of pretend play, the experimentation is more internal. Children who pretend, and grown-ups who immerse themselves in the imaginary realms of fiction and drama, are considering what would happen if the world were different, and working out the consequences.10

In other words, open-ended play makes us better at envisioning changes that we might make to our lives or to the world. This may have huge consequences for personal growth and creativity, or even for solving major problems faced by the world.

Many people don’t realize that they’re free to experiment with alternative rules to classic games. For example, I’ve invented over 100 different ways to play Jenga, just by rearranging the blocks into different patterns.

Often kids will do this kind of thing on their own without any encouragement, but feel free to nudge them towards creative freedom. Perhaps all you’d have to do is remind them that they’re free to make up their own rules. Inventing your own, unique versions of games is not only an exercise in creativity, you might invent something that the whole world will want to play. Go forth and make games your own through creative adjustments!


Many games, especially those marketed as strategy games, require strategy. They teach you to plan ahead, evaluate different options, choose priorities, and decide in what order to make your moves. You have to have a long-term strategy that is executed through short-term tactics. You have to adjust your strategy and your tactics based on the actions of other players, and you’ll probably have to change your approach as the game progresses.

Strategy games cultivate logic, awareness, and flexibility. These skills are fundamental to success in school and in life.

When you are assigned a project, you must plan what you’ll do and when, deciding on a logical order and prioritizing based on that order. You’ll frequently have to evaluate options, such as which resources to use and when, just as you would when playing a game like Settlers of Catan.

When you are tackling a complicated story problem in math or science, you must decide what information is relevant and how to use it. You need an overarching strategy for problem-solving, such as identifying key unknowns you’ll have to solve for along the way. And you’ll need short-term tactics, such as writing things down to manage your cognitive load, just as you write down what you’re discovering during a game of Clue.

When you are preparing for a test, you much choose from a variety of study methods, and the way you choose to study should depend, in part, on how soon the exam is. When you have two weeks, you adopt a different strategy than when you’re cramming. If you are cramming, and there isn’t time to learn everything, you have to evaluate trade-offs and make a choice that maximizes the time you have, just as you must do in the final rounds of Abyss.

Strategy games also force you to maintain a running theory about what other people want. If you know what your opponent’s goals are, you can predict his moves and defeat him, but to do so, you have to be able to see things from his perspective. In other words, adding vantage points is the way to gain an advantage. And this holds true in many other situations as well: persuasive essays, discussions with your teacher, debates, negotiations, and in nearly every workplace imaginable.

Social Skills

As mentioned earlier, many animals use play to learn social skills and build social bonds. Humans, of course, do this too. Games played with other people can dramatically improve social skills, and playing together is one of the primary ways we form friendships.

Games provide a fun environment to practice communication, cooperation, and the presentation of self. When we learn to play games, we must also learn to win and lose gracefully. When we play on teams, we must learn to treat our teammates well, even when they make mistakes. Many games require attentive listening and speaking carefully chosen words (or not speaking certain words, as in Taboo).

Some games teach nonverbal communication, such as card games where we have partners who need to “read” us, and where we want our competition to misread us. Many games require us to notice the subtle cues – facial expressions and body language – that reveal the intentions of other players. Because our opponents are doing this as well, we mustn’t get too excited when we draw a good card.

In all these ways, games help cultivate emotional maturity and social intelligence.7

One lovely example of this is a summer camp offered through Blue Highway Games in Queen Anne called “Ubuntu” in which kids meet in a park for structured, outdoor games. Their motto is “Connecting people through play.”

Risk and Resilience

Games can teach us to learn from mistakes and deal with failures. When we learn a new game, we have to experiment to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. Games often require us to guess what to do with limited information. Wizard and 7 Wonders Duel are good examples of this. If we want to keep playing, we have to take risks.

Many people, adults included, struggle with risk-taking. We’re afraid to make mistakes, afraid to fail, and afraid of how others will judge us if we mess up. Games provide a safe environment for risk-taking. Usually, the worst possible consequence of making a mistake is losing the game, once. We can always start over and try again. In this way, games can be a tool for overcoming crippling perfectionism.

According to play expert Stuart Brown, when we deprive rats of play during their development, they don’t develop the ability to recover from fearful experiences and take necessary risks. One experiment that showed this had two groups of nearly identical rats and separated them from birth into a group that was allowed to play and group that was deprived of play. When these rats were later presented with an object that smelled like a cat, they all ran away in terror, found a hiding place, and cowered there. Eventually, the rats who had been allowed to play as children came out of hiding and cautiously explored their environment. But the play-deprived rats never came out. They stayed in their hiding places until they died.8

This is a pretty extreme demonstration of the relationship between play and risk-taking. When animals play, they take some risks. They might mess up while playing, hurt a companion a little or get hurt a little themselves, but the stakes are generally low, and something is learned from each mistake.8

In human play, confidence is built steadily, through trial-and-error. A sense that we can recover from setbacks arises. With that in our psychological arsenal, we’re much more prepared for adulthood.


Games are good at convincing your brain to care, so they make content easier to learn. That, plus the fact that play is intrinsically motivating, has led some people to push for the “gamification” of learning, which means turning school lessons and homework into something akin to video games.12

There are certainly some situations where this is appropriate and effective, but we shouldn’t see it as a panacea. Most schoolwork does not readily lend itself to gamification, and even if it did, we’d be unwise to do so. I doubt we’ll ever gamify the workplace. Students still need to learn how to do boring work.

The Right Kind of Play

Not all games are created equal. Some games do not provide much benefit at all, while others have powerful benefits. Look for games that provide steadily increasing challenges. Look for games that consistently put you in new situations and demand new solutions. Look for games that make you think. These definitively do not have to be so-called “brain games.”

All games require us to learn how to play them, and the act of learning makes us smarter. If, beyond that, the game is easy and repetitive, then it’s not helping. The lesson here is clear: play a variety of games; constantly learn new games; play games that challenge you; seek out competitors who are slightly better than you; and, once you’ve mastered a game, move on because you’re not getting much benefit from it anymore.

The best kinds of play are what we find at the intersection of fun and challenging.

Video Games

Despite their bad reputation, video games can even be beneficial, so long as they fit the above criteria. Many video games are repetitive and mind-numbing; these provide no benefit. But many other video games are challenging, dynamic games that demand creativity, constant learning, quick-thinking, and clever strategy.12

And there are documented benefits:

For instance, an important 2003 study in the journal Nature found an array of benefits to playing video games. On tests of visual perception, game players scored 30 percent higher than nonplayers. Playing video games enhanced individuals’ ability to detect changes in the environment and their capacity to process information simultaneously. Even doctors can benefit … One study found that physicians who spent at least three hours a week playing video games made about 37 percent fewer mistakes in laparoscopic surgery and performed the task 27 percent faster than did their counterparts who did not play.6

Cognitive neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier studies action video games at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. She and her colleagues have found that, in players of action video games, “key ‘focusing’ areas of the brain become much more efficient. Action gamers can also switch their attention quickly with only a small mental cost.”13 They even discovered that, because video game environments are so complex, gamers become “better at suppressing irrelevant information,” a critical skill in the information-rich modern world.13 Acknowledging that “bingeing isn’t healthy,” Bavelier’s research shows that it doesn’t take very much gaming to get the positive effects – just 30 minutes per day for a few months is enough to produce a long-lasting benefit.13

Too Much of a Good Thing

I mentioned earlier that I’ve had difficulties with video-game addiction. At times, I played Halo and Warcraft so much that my schoolwork and social life suffered. Play may be good for you, but only in moderation. Play should be a part of your life, not your entire life.

Video game addiction is a very real and serious problem. Several people have died from too much continuous gaming,14 but excessive gaming becomes problematic long before it threatens your life. Parents should be concerned when their children seem to care more about their games than about what’s going on in the real world. The most addictive games appear to be massive-multiplayer-online-role-playing-games,15 such as World of Warcraft, but just about any game can be addictive. It has become so prevalent that there are now a variety of rehab programs for those struggling to overcome video game addiction.16

Click here to see a summary of several academic research articles on video game addiction.

I generally favor physical games, such as board games and card games over video games because they tend to be less addictive. They usually require someone else to physically be there, so you can’t just play by yourself for hours on end. And they tend to be less flashy and more limited, so the tendency to get addicted is reduced.

But it’s not gone. I’ve spent over 1000 hours playing online chess – a decidedly unflashy game. In 4th grade I was addicted to Monopoly, which is pretty boring by modern standards. A decade later, I was hooked on a board game called Blokus, and I had several friends who were similarly addicted and had enough free time to play with me for hours on end. Many people today – adults included – are addicted to Magic: The Gathering.

When the focus on play trumps schoolwork, health, and family, it has gone too far. So as good as play is, you can have too much of a good thing.

Modeling a Healthy Relationship to Play

One thing every parent can do to help their children develop a healthy relationship to play is leading by example.

Play, by the way, isn’t just about kids playing with kids or kids playing with parents; it’s also about parents playing with parents. Games are for parents (and grandparents) too.

I have a distinct childhood memory of struggling to fall asleep because of the raucous laughter coming from down the hall. My parents, along with some of my aunts and uncles, were playing Balderdash. My parents still regularly play games with their neighbors, friends, and siblings. And when I come home to visit, they eagerly suggest that we play Rummikub, Bananagrams, or Ticket To Ride. But my parents also work very hard, do their chores, exercise, and read.

Play is just a healthy part of their balanced lifestyle.


Recommended Games

Be sure to check out our list of recommended games, sorted by type!


Works Cited

1 Dugatkin, Lee Alan and Rodrigues, Sarina. “Games Animals Play.” Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. UC Berkeley.  March 1, 2008.

2 Restak, Richard and Kim, Scott. The Playful Brain: The Surprising Science of How Puzzles Improve Your Mind. Riverhead Trade, 2011. Pg. 12-13.

3 Wagner, Tony. Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. Scribner, 2012.

4 Izquierdo, Isabel Behncke “Evolution’s Gift of Play from Bonobo Apes to Humans.” TED2011.

5 MacDonald, Matthew. Your Brain: The Missing Manual. O’Reilly Media, 2008.

6 Pink, Daniel H. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Riverhead Trade, 2006. Pg. 192-211.

7 Keil, Steve. “A Manifesto for Play for Bulgaria and Beyond.” TEDxBG, 2011.

8 Brown, Stuart. “Play is more than just fun.” TED Serious Play 2008.

9 Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business, 2010.

10 Gopnik, Alison. “In Defense of Play: The ‘elaborate detour’ of having fun pays cognitive dividends.” The Atlantic. August 12, 2016.

11 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Harper Perennial, 1997.

12 Zichermann, Gabe. “How Games Make Kids Smarter.” TEDxKids@Brussels, 2011.

13 Oakley, Barbara, PhD. Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential. TarcherPerigee, 2017. Pg. 145-147.

14 “Gaming to Death: 6 Woeful Tales of People Who Died Playing Video Games.” ShezCrafti. February 11, 2012.

15 Van Rooij, Antonius J., et al. “Video game addiction and social responsibility.” Addiction Research and Theory. Volume 18. 26 Aug 2010. Pg. 489-493.

16 “Choosing the Best Video Game Addiction Rehab Program.”

Image Credits

Title Image: Loper, Chris.

Water fight: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Kittens: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Boy with trains: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Einstein: Sasse, Arthur. Fair use,

Jenga: Loper, Chris.

Chess: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Girls playing: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Video Gaming: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Card Game: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

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Natural Learning

First, I should clarify that, with this article about natural learning, I’m not saying “natural” is better. I’m not advocating that we return education to a “state of nature,” move classrooms outside, and make everything hands-on because, among other reasons, those would be unrealistic aims. Rather, I’m saying that we can design better teaching methods and choose more effective study techniques if we’re aware of how humans naturally learn. This is one of the many reasons why it’s a good idea to know something about human nature.

The most compelling public speakers and the most effective teachers are people who know how to connect with the evolved psychology of their audiences. The best study methods are those that tap into how we naturally form strong memories. All of us are in possession of an old brain living in the modern world. We’ll do better at everything, especially academics, if we know our brain’s history.

Our brains evolved to learn in particular ways, and so we struggle when attempting to learn in ways that don’t come naturally to us. Modern schools, for the most part, ignore key aspects of human nature. For example, the physical location in which learning occurs is radically different from that of our ancestors.

Our ancestors learned outdoors, while moving around. Play has been a key part of natural learning for millions of years of mammalian evolution. But now we think there’s something wrong with kids who have a hard time sitting still for hours on end. And many schools have done away with P.E. and reduced recess, forgetting that exercise makes students better learners.1 We can’t go back to a state of nature, nor should we, but we also can’t completely forget where we came from.

More Senses

Our ancestors learned by hearing, watching, tasting, smelling, and doing. Their education occurred in a rich, multi-sensory environment. As such, we’ve evolved to remember things that stimulate many of our senses.1 Abstract concepts feel more real when we can link them to sensory experiences. The more senses a lesson stimulates, the more easily it will be remembered.1

Much of our ancestors’ learning was done through visual observation, and, to this day, the majority of the information we receive through our senses is visual.1 As such, vision is by far the most important sense to include in a lesson.And this has been true since long before our ape ancestors ever stood up and walked on two legs. The saying, “Monkey see, monkey do,” actually reveals a deep truth about how humans learn.

Public speaking expert Carmine Gallo explains the power of visuals aids in learning:

If you hear information, you are likely to remember about 10 percent of that information three days later. Add a picture, however, and your recall rate will soar to 65 percent. … a picture will help you remember six times more information than listening to words alone.2

This makes perfect sense, given our history. Language is believed to be a rather recent development in our line of ancestry, perhaps dating back just 200,000 years.3 Reading and writing are even more recent developments, dating back less than 6,000 years.4

Although our current school system relies heavily on verbal information to teach, students now have the option of seeking out educational videos that offer a more vivid sensory experience. My favorite is CrashCourse. These are not a substitute for classrooms and textbooks, but they make an excellent supplement.


When it comes to verbal information, we learn best through stories. Stories grab our attention by tapping into human nature.5 Our ancestors did not sit through long lectures; they told one another stories.

Ideas make more sense to us when they’re wrapped inside a narrative, so one very effective way to study is to tell yourself a story about the ideas you’re learning. And you can go one step further and teach that story to others.

Trial and Error

Our ancestors also learned most skills through trial and error. After observing someone else perform the skill, we tried to mimic the behavior, struggled, and got better by struggling. In other words, we evolved to learn by making mistakes and failing.

This is just one more example of why the growth mindset is not just the most helpful mindset, but also the factually correct one. We’re born with a growth mindset. We all learned to walk by stumbling and falling repeatedly.


Our ancestors evolved to remember the things that stood out as important, and our brains still respond to the same cues.

New and surprising information is remembered well because it grabs our attention, and we must pay close attention in order to learn well. Titanic explorer Robert Ballard explains: “‘When you get a jaw drop, you can inform. You can put so much information into that mind, it’s in full receiving mode.’”6

Another cue that signals importance is strong emotion. We more easily remember things that are coupled with emotional significance because we naturally pay better attention when our emotions are aroused.1 Nobody has trouble remembering the time they broke their leg or won the big game.

It’s the boring things that we find hard to remember – topics that don’t feel important. Our brains aren’t inclined to devote resources to remembering things that seem unimportant. In fact, we find them hard to focus on in the first place, making them doubly hard to learn.

Our attention span is rather short, and listening is mentally exhausting.5 So, despite its ubiquity, a long, boring lecture is probably the worst way to teach. It helps to be reminded of the significance of the topic every 10 minutes or so; otherwise we tend to lose interest.1

Schools often struggle with this. They have to present material to students that is boring to many of the students. And most kids don’t feel like what they’re learning in school has much significance. Of course, most teachers search for creative ways to spice up their lessons because they know that it’s the best way to hold their students’ attention.

But this is no easy task, and we can’t put all the burden on teachers. It is up to the students themselves to find ways to stay engaged. All students have a responsibility to be active agents in their own education. Even when you don’t really care about the content, you can convince your brain to care by acting like you care. Use two hands, make written product, and ask questions.

Boring content isn’t going away, so it’s up to students to make it stick.

Since writing is relatively new to our species, it probably seems like an unnatural way to learn, so it may be surprising to hear that hand-writing information is a powerful tool to remember it.7 The reason is that writing is actually a very active way to learn. Because it uses our hands, it aligns well with the sort of active learning our tool-making ancestors did.

This may help explain why hand-writing is more effective for memory formation than typing:8 Holding a pen or a pencil is more similar to holding a stick or a small tool, as our ancestors did, so it should spark greater activation in the learning centers of the brain. We’ve been manipulating tools and learning by using our hands for millions of years longer than we’ve had spoken language,3 so hand-writing information actually taps into a deeper part of the brain than listening to a lecture.

Likewise, self-testing is a natural way to learn because our ancestors were forced to put their knowledge to the test constantly. The challenges of their environment demanded it. Taking practice tests is an excellent way to signal to your brain that something matters, and, as such, it is a very effective study method.7

And probably the best way to fool your brain into thinking something boring is really important is to use spaced repetition. To our evolved psychology, repeated exposure to something is a clear indicator of its importance. The brain, quite naturally, thinks, “This thing keeps coming up, so I should remember it.”

Plus, a great deal of unconscious learning happens between exposures, so, the more exposures, the more unconscious learning is prompted.7 We evolved to learn things over time, so cramming all your studying into one night isn’t nearly as effective as spreading it out over several days.7


The modern world is brimming with distractions that we didn’t evolve to handle.

Our ancestors lived with much less visual and auditory stimulation, so it’s no surprise that we don’t learn well when distracted.1 If you want to study effectively, eliminate as many distractions as possible.7

Bright colors, loud noises, music, and other people – whether they’re really there, on a TV screen, a cell-phone, or on social media – are all things that naturally grab our attention, pulling us away from what we’re trying to learn. These things grab our attention because, to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, they would have been rare and genuinely important.

One of the most insidious forms of distraction is self-imposed: multi-tasking. We’re really only capable of focusing our conscious attention on one thing at a time,1 And yet we are routinely overconfident about our ability to multitask. David Glenn, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education explains:

That illusion of competence is one of the things that worry scholars who study attention, cognition, and the classroom. Students’ minds have been wandering since the dawn of education. But until recently—so the worry goes—students at least knew when they had checked out. A student today who moves his attention rapid-fire from text-messaging to the lecture to Facebook to note-taking and back again may walk away from the class feeling buzzed and alert, with a sense that he has absorbed much more of the lesson than he actually has.10


Lastly, I’d like to make the case that curiosity is a part of human nature that is underutilized in the world of education.

People like solving mysteries, deciphering clues, and putting puzzle pieces together,11 and mysteries naturally grab our attention.5 We’re more likely to be engaged in a lesson if we’re recruited by the teacher as sleuths. Sure, the teacher already knows the answer, but they can withhold it, and instead ask questions and provide hints that allow students to find the path to the answer on their own. This aligns well with how our ancestors would have figured things out. Lacking textbooks, professors, and Google, they would have had to go sleuthing to answer many of their questions.

We are natural explorers, with brains that evolved to scout the terrain and map the landscape. I, for one, experience a deep sense of exhilaration whenever I have the opportunity to explore someplace new, whether it is in the mountains or in the mind.

Students can choose to view their lessons as items on a to-do list, just things to get done. Or they can view their lessons as uncharted territory, awaiting exploration.

Works Cited

1 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.

2 Gallo, Carmine. Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. St. Martin’s Press, 2014. Pg. 213.

Zimmer, Carl. Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins. Harper Perennial, 2007.

4 Brown, Cynthia Stokes. Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. The New Press, 2007.

5 Gallo, Carmine. Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. St. Martin’s Press, 2014.

6 Ballard, Robert quoted in Gallo, Carmine. Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. St. Martin’s Press, 2014. Pg. 112.

7 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.

8 Hotz, Robert Lee. “Can Handwriting Make You Smarter? Students who take notes by hand outperform students who type, and more type these days, new studies show.” The Wall Street Journal. April 4, 2016.

10 Glenn, David. “Divided Attention: In an age of classroom multitasking, scholars probe the nature of learning and memory.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. February 28, 2010.

11 Restak, Richard and Kim, Scott. The Playful Brain: The Surprising Science of How Puzzles Improve Your Mind. Riverhead Trade, 2011.

Image Credits

Title Image: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. Text added.

Our Ancestors’ Classroom: Zenino, Christine. “Jungle girl…” Creative Commons 2.0.

Modern Classroom: Levine, Alan. “Ye Old Classrooms.” Creative Commons 2.0.

Campfire Story: Thomas, Martin. “Campfire.” Creative Commons 2.0.

Baby Learning to Walk: Nadiger, Sriharsha. “my first step.” Creative Commons Public Domain.

Written Product: Arment, Marco. “Brainstorming.” Creative Commons 2.0.

Stone Tool User: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Modern Distractions: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Curious Child: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.