This is your brain on WineGame

What if one thing could boost health and endorphin levels, even stimulate brain cell regeneration? If it came in a capsule, we’d rush to the doctor and beg for a prescription. But it doesn’t, and in fact with ample evidence that both play and wine tasting build better brains, the antidote might just be playing with your wine.

We all know the joy of kids at play, the thrill of going a little too high on the swingset, or tobogganing too fast down a snow-covered slope. But play isn’t frivolous, and it’s not just for kids.

“The absence of play is depression,” says Peter Gray, professor of psychology at Boston College, who researches the role of play in human biological and cultural evolution. Play is not just good for the soul, but for the brain.

Get this: rats given a toy-filled cage grew thicker cerebral cortices than rats in a sterile environment. That’s right, bigger brains -- and they sussed their way through a maze more quickly as well. In another experiment, rats tested after bouts of play showed higher levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) -- necessary for the growth and maintenance of brain cells -- than sedentary rats. BDNF levels also increased after rats were allowed to explore.

And while many of the studies scientists cite to prove that play is essential to human development would be unethical to do on actual people, there is one area where subjects are lining up to be subjects. Yale neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd coined the term Neuroenology to describe the inner workings of the brain whilst a person is drinking wine, which he’s observed in laboratory experiments.

“You don't just put wine in your mouth and leave it there,” Shepherd says. In fact, he argues, tasting wine engages the brain more than any mathematics, music, or virtually any other activity. “You move it about and then swallow it, which is a very complex motor act.”

Shepherd thinks that in this manner the brain actually determines the flavor of wine: so drink up, it makes you smarter. And while you’re at it, play with your wine. Psychologist Gray warns of what he calls “play deficit disorder,” which is just as it sounds, a joyless, unimaginative state in which creativity and growth are stifled.

“And the only cure is play,” he says.