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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

The perfect conversation for summer on the value of play throughout our lives.

What’s so fascinating is how Dr. Stuart Brown first come to study play — by studying mass murderer Charles Whitman:

"In 1966 when I was just beginning to take over and office as an assistant professor of psychiatry, a young man by the name of Charles Whitman went up to the Texas Tower in Austin, Texas, after killing his wife and mother. He perpetrated what was then the largest mass murder in the history of the United States, killing 17 additional people and wounding 41. And because I had done some studies of violence in the course of my residency in neurology and psychiatry, and because in August in Texas most people who are important are elsewhere, I was put in charge of the behavioral aspect of trying to figure out why Charles Whitman did this horrendous crime. And we brought in the world’s experts to try to figure out the motivation of Charles Whitman, even though he had been killed by vigilante crossfire at the top of the tower.

And so for a very intense period of time, in addition to doing very detailed toxicologic and — studies of his body, we retrieved as much information as possible from his prenatal area all the way up to the last hours before he died. And without going through that entire story, one of the major conclusions, which struck me and has certainly stuck with me since, was that a remarkably systematic suppression of any free play — which was largely the result of his father’s overbearing and intense personality — prevented Charles Whitman from engaging in normal play at virtually any era of his life, including his early infancy.

We thought at the end of the Whitman study that this was such a bizarre aberration in human behavior that it probably was not something one could generalize from. So as a result of the funding available and the availability of research subjects in the prison system in Texas, a team of us then studied all the young murderers whose crime was essentially homicide without their being career criminals, and we did an in-depth study of them, their families, and compared them to as well-matched a control and comparison population as we could. And, lo and behold, we discovered that the majority of them — in fact 90% level — had really bizarre, absent, deficient, seriously deviant play histories.”

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A little girl expresses her joy at the beauty of springtime in Kent in 1946.
It’s this kind of play that Dr. Stuart Brown, director of the National Institute of Play says teaches empathy, trust, irony, and problem solving.
(Photo by George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images)

A little girl expresses her joy at the beauty of springtime in Kent in 1946.

It’s this kind of play that Dr. Stuart Brown, director of the National Institute of Play says teaches empathy, trust, irony, and problem solving.

(Photo by George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images)

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If one were to get a replay of Michael Jordan in one of the final games of NBA championship and see him zoning down the floor doing some moves he’s never done before and tossing the ball up for a basket, I doubt if, at that time, he is really conscious that the buzzer’s about to go or that — I think he’s outside of time. And I can certainly give you from my own life recollections of that sensation. Just, say last week, I was I in a nice musical concert that was being held in Monterey and, you know, I got lost in the music and had the feeling of, you know, sort of an oceanic feeling of not being there. And it wasn’t something I expected to happen. But it was pleasurable. Watching a grandson of mine on the floor with his stuffed animal talking to it, timeless. And it’s different for, for lots of us.

— Stuart Brown, director of the National Institute of Play, from his 2007 interview, "Play, Spirit, and Character."

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What does it mean that our society places such a premium on fantasy and imagination?
- A fascinating question from Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann in her NYT op-ed. She very much affirms the need in this “information-soaked age.” How about you?
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"Insight is not a matter of memory, of knowledge and time, which are all thought. Insight is the total absence of the whole movement of thought as time and remembrance. So there is direct perception. It is as though I have been going North for the last ten thousand years, and my brain is accustomed to going North, and somebody comes along and says, that will lead you nowhere, go East. When I turn round and go East the brain cells have changed. Because I have an insight that the North leads nowhere. I will put it differently. The whole movement of thought, which is limited, is acting throughout the world now. It is the most important action, we are driven by thought. But thought will not solve any of our problems, except the technological ones. If I see that, I have stopped going North. I think that with the ending of a certain direction, the ending of a movement that has been going on for thousands of years, there is at that moment an insight that brings about a change, a mutation, in the brain cell.” —Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986)
Sujata Krishna offered this passage from Questioning Krishnamurti after listening to our show with Rex Jung. During the interview, he described how the brain, with training, can actually change shape, beef up like a muscle that’s been trained:



"I think there are some strategies to cultivating creativity. It takes a lot of time to change the structure of your brain and there are several studies out there now. You know, the famous juggling study where they have novices who don’t know how to juggle. They image them, then they juggle for three months, they image them again and they see that literally a portion of their brain, a small chunk, but a portion of their brain is beefed up like a muscle in service of that concerted thing that they’re doing with their brain and that is the thing.
The important thing is they’re doing a very new thing in a concerted way. And their brain says, hey, if we’re going to be doing this thing in the environment over and over and over, I’m going to build tissue to do that so that we can do it easier and more efficiently. So if you’re going to be creative, pick one thing, get a lot of experience in that one thing, and do it over and over and over.”



Think about that. We can actually change the shape of our brains. Time to get to work. Putting that idea to work, methinks this magnified image of stained neurons is a fitting pairing.
Image by Mr. McGill / Flickr
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

"Insight is not a matter of memory, of knowledge and time, which are all thought. Insight is the total absence of the whole movement of thought as time and remembrance. So there is direct perception. It is as though I have been going North for the last ten thousand years, and my brain is accustomed to going North, and somebody comes along and says, that will lead you nowhere, go East. When I turn round and go East the brain cells have changed. Because I have an insight that the North leads nowhere.

I will put it differently. The whole movement of thought, which is limited, is acting throughout the world now. It is the most important action, we are driven by thought. But thought will not solve any of our problems, except the technological ones. If I see that, I have stopped going North. I think that with the ending of a certain direction, the ending of a movement that has been going on for thousands of years, there is at that moment an insight that brings about a change, a mutation, in the brain cell.” —Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986)

Sujata Krishna offered this passage from Questioning Krishnamurti after listening to our show with Rex Jung. During the interview, he described how the brain, with training, can actually change shape, beef up like a muscle that’s been trained:

"I think there are some strategies to cultivating creativity. It takes a lot of time to change the structure of your brain and there are several studies out there now. You know, the famous juggling study where they have novices who don’t know how to juggle. They image them, then they juggle for three months, they image them again and they see that literally a portion of their brain, a small chunk, but a portion of their brain is beefed up like a muscle in service of that concerted thing that they’re doing with their brain and that is the thing.

The important thing is they’re doing a very new thing in a concerted way. And their brain says, hey, if we’re going to be doing this thing in the environment over and over and over, I’m going to build tissue to do that so that we can do it easier and more efficiently. So if you’re going to be creative, pick one thing, get a lot of experience in that one thing, and do it over and over and over.”

Think about that. We can actually change the shape of our brains. Time to get to work. Putting that idea to work, methinks this magnified image of stained neurons is a fitting pairing.

Image by Mr. McGill / Flickr

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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French Christians Protest Provocative Play about Jesus, Religion, and Consumer Culture
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
A woman holds a banner reading “Touche pas à Dieu!" ("Don’t touch God!") during a demonstration in Paris, France this past Sunday. The Institut Civitas called on Christians to gather and denounce “Christianophobia” and Argentine-born author Rodrigo Garcia’s play Golgota Picnic, which the fundamentalist Christian group judges as “blasphemous.” Thousands of Catholics took part in the demonstration and stopped at the Théâtre de Rond-Point on the Champs Elysees which is running the play, which contains a stage littered with hamburger buns and scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion with biblical readings.
Golgota Picnic is a hard-hitting critique of consumer culture and religion in which, Garcia said to the BBC, “depicts the life of Christ through shocking images of contemporary consumer society.”
Photo by Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images.

French Christians Protest Provocative Play about Jesus, Religion, and Consumer Culture

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

A woman holds a banner reading “Touche pas à Dieu!" ("Don’t touch God!") during a demonstration in Paris, France this past Sunday. The Institut Civitas called on Christians to gather and denounce “Christianophobia” and Argentine-born author Rodrigo Garcia’s play Golgota Picnic, which the fundamentalist Christian group judges as “blasphemous.” Thousands of Catholics took part in the demonstration and stopped at the Théâtre de Rond-Point on the Champs Elysees which is running the play, which contains a stage littered with hamburger buns and scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion with biblical readings.

Golgota Picnic is a hard-hitting critique of consumer culture and religion in which, Garcia said to the BBC, “depicts the life of Christ through shocking images of contemporary consumer society.”

Photo by Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images.

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A Glimpse of Gazan Twilight

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Yes, since returning from our production trip to Israel and the West Bank, I find myself looking for momentary glimpses of humanity and beauty from that part of the world. There’s a lot of intensity, but a gentleness too, which often goes unnoticed by media outlets. Seeing quelowat’s posting of this photograph accomplishes this in spades:
A Palestinian boy tried to give his animal a wash Friday in the Mediterranean near Gaza City. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

A Glimpse of Gazan Twilight

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Yes, since returning from our production trip to Israel and the West Bank, I find myself looking for momentary glimpses of humanity and beauty from that part of the world. There’s a lot of intensity, but a gentleness too, which often goes unnoticed by media outlets. Seeing quelowat’s posting of this photograph accomplishes this in spades:

A Palestinian boy tried to give his animal a wash Friday in the Mediterranean near Gaza City. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

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Science, Religion, and Splitting Infinity

by Eric Nelson, guest contributor

Actors Perform in "Splitting Infinity"
Robbie and Leigh in Jamie Pachino’s Splitting Infinity at San Jose Rep. (photo: Robert Shomler)

Serving as a spokesperson for Christian Science, much of my time is spent correcting inaccuracies and misconceptions about my faith that appear in the daily press and, rarely but occasionally, the entertainment media.  In one particular instance, however, I was pleased to find that few such corrections were necessary thanks, in no small measure, to the performance of one woman in Jamie Pachino’s stage play, "Splitting Infinity."

The play explores the apparent conflict between science and religion; between those who rely solely upon mathematical and empirical evidence as a means of understanding the physical universe, and those who turn to prayer to connect with the infinite Divine. The characters employed include a Nobel laureate astrophysicist, her lover, a rabbi, and a devout Christian Scientist.

It would perhaps be tempting (if predictable) to pit one side against the other in this cosmic quest — the rational empiricists against the irrational religionists. And it might be equally tempting (and equally predictable) to create and cast stereotyped caricatures of the respective viewpoints presented. But this is not what I found in “Splitting Infinity.” Instead, I found that these characters actually had a lot more in common than not.

As I watched the play — paying particular attention to how Christian Science was both presented and portrayed — I was surprised to see a balanced, if not entirely accurate, presentation.

Sure, the scripting could have been better. For instance, none of the Christian Scientists I’ve ever known are categorically opposed to the medical profession, as was implied in the play. No Christian Scientist I know would ever knowingly allow their child to suffer. And no Christian Scientist I know would ever sacrifice their child in the name of religious dogma. That said, the woman who played the Christian Scientist did a commendable job of presenting a sympathetic character — thoughtful, intelligent, and caring.

What I saw in this character was a woman acting in consonance with her highest sense of right; a woman whose decision to rely solely on prayer for healing — and her expectation of healing — was born of her personal success in keeping her own diabetes at bay; a woman not unlike many of those in the audience perhaps facing similar challenges, similar crucibles, similar decisions.

The end of the play leaves the audience considering two symmetric if unanswered questions: Was the Christian Scientist betrayed by her faith in God? Was the astrophysicist betrayed by her quest to discover a Godless universe?

I won’t give away the ending (or my bias) by saying whether I agree or disagree with the answers presented, but I will say that I’m glad that Christian Science was at least included in the discussion. Rather than proliferating the idea that science and religion are absolutely and eternally incompatible, its practice has proven for me and countless others that, in the words of Albert Einstein, “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”


Eric NelsonEric Nelson lives in Hayward, California and serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. He also works as a Christian Science practitioner, helping those interested in relying solely on the power of prayer for healing.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

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Soccer, Futbol: Beauty in Simplicity

Shubha Bala, associate producer
Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Jessica HilltoutThe World Cup final expects to draw 700 million viewers in a few hours. And with all the fanfare and elaborate ceremonies preceding this championship game, soccer at its core is a game of universal appeal and absolute simplicity. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the continent of Africa itself.

We saw a continent come together to support its last surviving participant, Ghana, when all others were eliminated. Can you imagine the English doing the same for their Scottish brothers, or Americans celebrating Mexico advancing?

As photographer Jessica Hilltout, who documented the many ways in which the sport is played across Africa in her series "Amen: Grassroots Football," points out in her interview with The New York Times, “The beautiful game exists in its purest form in what I saw — people playing for the joy of playing.” And, the game can be played almost anywhere using almost anything: driftwood fashioned as goal posts, leather sandals as soccer shoes, pitches as gravel parking lots, and even balls made out of old socks and plastic bags and twine.

This passion for play, regardless of one’s environment or circumstances, takes place in the farthest reaches of our planet. The slide show below is a selection of photographs from Flickr capturing that joy of the game.

(photo: Child in Soale, Ghana by Jessica Hilltout)

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Approaching Improv

by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

Anoushka Shankar
Anoushka Shankar performs at the Wychwood Music Festival in 2007. (photo: Damian Rafferty/Fly)

While listening to a classic SOF program, "Approaching Prayer" last week, I was struck by musician Anoushka Shankar’s wise words about improvisation:

"…when you’re improvising, it completely forces you to be in the moment, and every bit of your mind and your heart has to be involved with nothing but the melody that you’re playing, the time cycle you’re playing, and what’s happening with your musicians. And that being in the moment is, I think, one of the most important things you can possibly do, whether it’s through meditation or music or studying religion. And that’s always the goal of any meditator is to be in the moment always and not to have your head stuck in the future or stuck in the past. And when you’re able to do that, that’s the whole idea of Zen, I think, as well. And so that’s really beautiful."

I’m taking an an introductory Everyday Improv class right now, and it’s been a delightful challenge to step out of my thinking brain and trust that I don’t need to script or plan into the future — that what I blurt out in the creative rush of the moment will be better and truer than whatever I might concoct in anticipation. I relish the central tenets of performance improv, like accepting every idea as a gift, saying “yes and” to whatever manifests in a scene, trusting my gut, and staying authentic in the moment. It’s not always easy to live up to these principles, but I’m having fun trying.

We’ve heard recently from some listeners about improv is enriching their daily lives. Jim Martinez, a former Wall Street IT professional and teacher in the South Bronx, responded to our recent program with Adele Diamond about how he’s helping schools to meld performance improv and technology in ways that are playful and collaborative.

I hope that we can devote a full program to the theme of improvisation in the future. I see this building on past shows like "Play, Spirit, and Character" and our Repossessing Virtue series on the economic downturn where some of you shared how you’re learning to live improvisationally in the face of greater financial uncertainty.

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First Time Flying a Kite
Trent Gilliss, online editor

The footage spliced together in the video above comes directly from the home library of Adele Diamond and her husband, Don. During her interview, she told Krista the following story:

So I think mysteries are just wonderful. It’s very interesting because when I made this book for the Dalai Lama, I put a lot of love and time and effort into it. And my husband said, who came with me to Dharamsala said, ‘If you’re going to give him a present, I want to give him a present too.’ So he wanted to give him a kite because he didn’t think the Dalai Lama got to spend enough time playing. …

And so then he found online that he could get a package of 10 plain undecorated kites very inexpensively. So he asked me if I could find classes of school children to decorate them. So I contacted a colleague, Kim Schonert-Reichl, and she helped me find a class of children with developmental disorders, many of them ADHD, who were either not on medication or on reduced medication because they were doing mindfulness. So they had heard of the Dalai Lama, and they were very excited to be decorating these kites. And there were two children per kite. So on one side, they did self portraits, so it looked like a Picasso because half of the kite is one child’s face and half of the kite is the other child’s face. Anyway, so my husband brings all these to Dharamsala and we get a private audience with His Holiness and we had the wisdom not to bring all the kites with us to the audience because the Dalai Lama said thank you but it was very clear he wasn’t going to fly any kites; he’s was going to put them in a drawer.

So after that we went to visit Matthieu Ricard at Katmandu, where he has a Tibetan monastery. And he has many humanitarian projects in connection with that and one of them are schools for poor children. Any background, doesn’t matter, religious or ethnic. They call it bamboo schools because the buildings are all made out of bamboo. So we went to these bamboo schools and we brought the rest of the kites and we gave it to the children there. They had never flown kites before, and they were so happy to be flying these kites. And Matthieu was so happy to see the children so happy. And we took photos and videos and I brought them back to the class in Vancouver to the children who had been studying mindfulness and I showed them the pictures and they were so happy to see how happy they had made the other children.

And one of them said, ‘You know, we’re on the other side of the world but we’re all connected.’”

As if Diamond’s descriptions of the Dalai Lama, Nepal, bamboo schools, and children painting kites weren’t enticing enough, we wanted to visualize the scene of those children flying kites. What strikes me is an immense amount of joy — the children playing and Adele and Don watching their gift come to life. I hope you enjoy these few minutes of seeing the world through an act of simplicity — flying and entangling a kite in a tree.

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SoundSeen: Dramatic Play + the Developing Brain

by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

For this week’s show "Learning, Doing, Being: A New Science of Education," Krista interviewed neuroscientist Adele Diamond, who studies how social dramatic play can build “executive function” (EF) skills in children’s brains. As Diamond explains it, EF is a container term for capacities like inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. These are skills that are lodged in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which Diamond calls “the new kid on the block” because it’s the part of the human brain to develop most recently through evolution. As we grow from babies into young adults, the prefrontal cortex is the last brain area to mature. When we age, it is the first to falter.

While producing this show, we learned that Diamond serves as an advisor for a nearby charter school that incorporates some elements of social dramatic play into its curriculum. We visited the school a few weeks ago and one result is this narrated slideshow pairing Adele Diamond’s explanation of the nuts and bolts of EF with 5th and 6th graders demonstrating some of the principles she describes through improvisational theater games.

If you have the chance, check out Krista’s full interview with Adele Diamond or listen for more of this ambient audio in the produced show. I don’t know what brain area is responsible for creating an audio slideshow but mine certainly got a workout putting this together.

And, a special thanks to the teachers and students at Quest Academy for their participation in this project.

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Genesis 4:9 Job 2:10 Matthew 27:31 Revelation 12:7

Animating the Word, with LEGOs
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer

Back in February we produced a radio/web package on the manuscript preservation work of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at Saint John’s Abbey in central Minnesota. The Abbey is also responsible for commissioning The Saint John’s Bible, a new hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible using the tools of vellum, quills, pigments, gold leaf, and time-honored processes that declined after the advent of the printing press. The hope of the project’s champions is to illuminate “the Word of God for a new millennium.”

Another approach to that end is that of Reverend (he’s not really a preacher) Brendan Powell Smith — an actor, author, musician, and past theology student who has chosen a staggering collection of LEGOs, a hobby knife, permanent marker, and a camera to “animate” the Word and bring it to life in books and online. Smith’s Brick Testament has seen a lot of press worldwide and so you may have come across this before, but if not, I thought you might enjoy seeing just a handful of the highly imaginative and resourceful uses of LEGOs that Smith snaps together to retell Scripture.

You may notice that some of the dialogue in the images is black and some is grey. The black is actual Scripture and the grey, well, the grey might be called apocryphal or simply playful, or what Smith imagined what might have also been said at the time. His translation of choice is the New Jerusalem Bible, with some things updated in Smith’s wording to avoid copyright issues. Please note: some of the images and “playful” language of The Brick Testament may not be suitable for all audiences, but there is a content code to point out sections that some may find objectionable.

Illustrations courtesy of The Brick Testament.

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Video Snack: One Ethereal Paper Plane
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

Sometimes the magical, the transcendent resonates in the seemingly mundane. I know; I just flew a Spider-Man kite with my three-year-old son for the first time. An image I had taken for granted as being fun came to life in a moment while looking at the awe on his face as he commandeered the strings.

This 8.5” x 11” piece of folded paper floating across the Brooklyn cityscape has that same affect. Take a bite of your lunch and enjoy.

(via VSL)

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