Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona Blog

The Neuroscientist’s Perspective on F U N

We recently asked Dr. Kim Gorgens FIVE questions about fun. The Denver-based researcher, speaker, professor and all-around neuro guru had a lot to say on the subject!

Brain Fun Kim and Eve

Dr. Gorgens (right) has some laughs with Dr. Eve Valera of Harvard University

The Neuroscientist’s Perspective on F U N

We recently asked Dr. Kim Gorgens FIVE questions about fun. The Denver-based researcher, speaker, professor and all-around neuro guru had a lot to say on the subject!

Brain Fun Kim and Eve

Dr. Gorgens (right) has some laughs with Dr. Eve Valera of Harvard University

1 - As far as the brain is concerned, what is the role of fun in our everyday lives?

Love this question!

Fun, or joy, or play may be the most important (and accessible) interventions for brain health. The specific role of fun and the importance of play has been hard for neuroscientists to quantify (maybe because they are also terrible at it!).

But it has taken a center stage in the last few years thanks to a model of “Affective Neuroscience.” Affective neuroscience is the study of the emotional brain (Freud was right, feelings are where it’s at). Play or joy is one of the seven pillars of affective neuroscience and is presumed to shape our lives and our brains in reciprocal ways.

For example, children’s play builds the brain’s volume and is a powerful mood booster—it is essential for their development. Kids who feel good play more and the cycle continues. Kids deprived of play become restless and depressed and their risk for mental illness skyrockets. Kids who are depressed, inattentive, or anxious play less than their peers. So their brains don’t get the same benefits, which may then make them more depressed, and the cycle continues.

Adults, in general, play far less than children and the development of our brain slows over time — I wonder if that’s a coincidence? We don’t know, but there’s no question that playfulness and joy are powerful interventions for brain health, and perhaps one of the most powerful tools we have for people with vulnerable brains.

I love a prescription for fun. Here is a brand new article highlighting the brain-related benefits of music for our adult brains—playing, learning, singing, or tapping along to “rhythmic music-based activities.” Check it out and grab your tambourine!

2 - In your role at the university, you mentor students, what role does fun play in work-life balance as a student? How can we carry that through to our careers and adult lives?

In my mind, students sitting in 3-hour lectures listening to my dorky jokes are having a lot of fun—KIDDING!

School is hard (life is hard) and as teachers or mentors, we could do more to model playfulness, joy and fun. We should be applying the lessons of neuroscience, specifically that fun is essential for complex learning. My first thought was to suggest we “require” as many hours of fun as students spend in the classrooms, which is all wrong (maybe for the same reasons that ‘forced exercise’ confers fewer health benefits). Instead, if we all remind ourselves to play a little every day, maybe we can start a revolution.

3 - How can we cope when we are in circumstances that are not fertile grounds to cultivate fun, like working through grief and loss, recovery from injury, or unexpected caregiving duties?

No question, life is hard and comes at you fast. It can feel dark and joyless and play sometimes seems like a distant, inaccessible luxury.

Knowing what we do about the reciprocal relationships between brain health and play and mood disturbance, I’d say you need to play in those times more than ever. Play, by definition, is unserious, free, and expressive—but it’s not a varsity sport. It is ‘riding’ the grocery cart to the car, humming a tune while sitting on the toilet (n.b., humming has interesting health benefits too), dancing with or arm-wrestling a friend, doodling on a slip of paper, or turning the volume up and singing along to the song you like on the radio (does anyone listen the radio anymore?!).

Find play—make play—allow yourself to play. If it feels like you can’t play, that means you really NEED it.

4 - You work with individuals who are incarcerated. What would people unfamiliar with the criminal justice system be surprised to learn about friends, connections, and fun while incarcerated?

Mammals are hard-wired for pleasure—to feel it and to seek it out—and people can find joy and make fun or play everywhere they go.

That said, institutional settings like jails and prisons make it a lot harder. There are policies that allow administrative segregation (“ad seg”) where people spend 23 hours a day alone in a cell, with an hour alone in an outdoor pen. Or, lengthy lockdowns with no release at all from cells. At the time of writing this, inmates in Waupun prison in Wisconsin have not left their cells in more than 8 months owing to staffing shortages. Yikes.

We need to better appreciate the rehabilitative potential of play. You see the success of that approach in programs like prison art initiatives (here is ours). Nearly every person in jails and prisons (95%+) will someday return to their communities—every effort to promote the health of their brains is a prudent investment with tremendous returns.

5 - What do you do for fun?

Haha — I hope you include the picture of me with Eve, dancing, wearing a blue wig covered in glitter—it is true what they say, work hard, play harder.

I love to play and am now feeling inspired (required?) to do it more. I laugh big from the belly whenever I can (often at inappropriate times), I trick my son into practicing ridiculously over-choreographed handshakes, and I hype my elderly dog into the zoomies. I love junk food and fancy eats, zombie movies, all things sci-fi, and complaining. Pretty well-balanced as fun goes but it could use some work, I mean PLAY. 😉


The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona (BIAAZ) is the only statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of adults and children with all types of brain injuries through prevention, advocacy, awareness and education. BIAAZ also houses the Arizona Brain Health Resource Center, a collection of educational information and neuro-specific resources for brain injury survivors, caregivers, family members and professionals.

What began in 1983 as a grassroots effort has grown into a strong statewide presence, providing valuable life-long resources and community support for individuals with all types of brain trauma at no charge.

The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona:

  • Works with Congressional Brain Injury Task Force
  • Houses Arizona Brain Health Resource Center
  • Hosts Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Workgroup
  • Has Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Response team with peer support, training, and family wraparound services
  • Facilitates Brain Health Advisory Council
  • Manages statewide Neuro Info-Line: 888-500-9165

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