Serious Game

Why curiosity may kill the cat but can save your brain and your future

Delphine Dépy Carron, spring 2022

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As a neuroscientist, I am very aware of the vital role our brains play in our overall well-being. It’s long been said that we should “use it or lose it” when it comes to the brain, and there are many studies[1] that show we need to exercise the brain in the same way as we do our bodies. 

We’ve all functioned on auto pilot—that car journey where you can’t remember changing gear, let alone driving the route—and it’s comforting to know we don’t have to think every time we walk! But as soon as the mind stops exploring its surroundings, we are losing out a powerful tool. In the words of a familiar phrase, curiosity may have killed the cat, but for humans, curiosity is essential to help us explore, learn and discover so that we can grow and innovate.

In my role as a coach, I often draw on the neuroscience that illustrates the brain’s role in releasing creativity and innovation. And I share with coachees three simple principles that can help to realise their vision and purpose:

We create our own reality: the brain constructs our reality based on a whole range of perceptions and filters. Our decision making is influenced by our emotions, our memories and our beliefs, all often automatically without us being aware of the process. It’s all part of an invisible architecture within—one that can block progress or advance it, depending on our understanding.

We can rewire our brains: thanks to neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to reorganise and reinvent itself—we can adapt our invisible architecture and beliefs if they no longer serve their purpose in our lives.

We can redesign our future: we all have the ability to change and decenter the habits of a lifetime by choosing new perspectives, a different environment, and designing new beliefs and associated behaviours that match our desired goals.

You may be thinking: “But I’m 35 (or 42 or enter any age)… How can I change now?” The answer is child’s play—literally. As a child, play inspires us to explore new possibilities. We discover what happens when we make certain choices in a safe environment, which prepares us for the times we are under threat. We learn to collaborate with others. And we have fun, experiencing joy that sparks reward systems in the brain and encourages us to do it again, and again.

Play with purpose

In my coaching sessions I often suggest people play with lego or play with nature, such as enjoying the company of dolphins, and these activities can help them to let go of their typical behaviours and beliefs and free their minds to be ready for new avenues.

Digital games are also a playful way to take people out of their day-to-day and explore a world of possibilities. Entering a fantasy world based around gamification brings back a sense of mystery and arouses curiosity. It also reintroduces a sense of wonder—something we may have lost since we were a child. I’ve been working with companies recently in a digital game environment which has helped several executive teams navigate their visioning process.

The games are tailored to an individual company’s needs and we use the immersiveness of the gaming experience to help people collaborate, co-create, and embrace a new way of thinking. For example, for one customer we developed a make-believe world based on different areas on an island. Entering the game through their chosen avatar, participants were able to visit a bar, sit around a firepit, or walk to the beach.  Along the way, they met people with instructions or were given tasks or quests. At all times they had an opportunity to contact other participants, chat or exchange ideas—either as a group or as individuals.

The games are fully facilitated and address a predefined goal, so this is not simply an exercise in team gaming. Objectives are met and results achieved—just in a different setting than the office meeting room or a Zoom call. In fact, the session often inspires the team on what they need to look at for their next challenge! Feedback from these sessions is positive: attendees commented that it was fun to be together in a new environment and how the session inspired them by giving them “permission” to be more creative.

Game on

Three benefits of using play to envision your future are:

  1. Reconnect with the present: The polyvagal theory from Stephen Porges[2] focuses on the vague nerve and how safe we feel in our environment—freeze or play dead, fight or flight and social cues all affect our responses which may include those that are highly detrimental to our health, such as isolation and anxiety. My own personal way of feeling better is to reconnect with nature—outdoors I can be in the present moment, feel secure and gain a fresh perspective.

  2. Be part of an experimental community: Our emotions colour the way we see the world—it’s part of our invisible architecture. Being in the context of a community and feeling safe and supported enables confidence—and employs the healing nature of the parasympathetic state (tuned to you heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, respiration, cell activity, and even body temperature). Game playing offers safe experimentation.

  3. Re-center your vision: We need to be in the right state of mind and body to be able and ready to project positively into the future—and that often means walking away from the daily grind. Using play to rebalance your nervous system and refresh your mind and body can give you a clearer mindset that helps to reinvent your thinking. Your visioning exercises will be far richer and full of wonder when you project from your center. It’s about getting in touch with the place where you feel good. It’s not a new concept; 25 years ago American psychologist and philosopher Eugene Gendlin stated that the ability to connect with ourselves inside, our feelings and intuition, was vital to our overall well-being.[3]

Just like joy, gratitude, fun, love, or even compassion, curiosity is a really positive attitude. By being full of wonder, you can increase your sense of closeness to others and give yourself the opportunity to be open to new ideas.

Using the mirror of the coach and digital gaming, it’s possible to redesign your invisible architecture to discover something really good in the future. If you’d like to hear more on this topic, listen to my podcast "Wonder, Vision, and The Brain".

[1] Papp K. V., Walsh S. J. & Snyder P. J. Immediate and delayed effects of cognitive interventions in healthy elderly: a review of current literature and future directions. Alzheimers Dement 5, 50–60 (2009)

[2]Porges, Stephen W. (2009). "The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system". Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. 76 (Suppl 2): S86–S90.

[3] Focusing, Eugene T. Gendlin

@HiMage / Thomas Carron

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Neuroscientist and executive coach, Delphine Dépy Carron, has been helping leaders, intrapreneurs, teams and organizations to reinvent themselves for more than 20 years. Studying intelligence, she discovered how animal intelligence can be a powerful source of inspiration and development for humans. She is regularly asked to help organizations develop emotional intelligence, leadership, relational intelligence, and creativity. Her programs involve working with horses or dolphins to accelerate awareness and promote sustainable behavioural change. Delphine is also a trainer at HEC Paris School of Coaching.