Having a ball: The anthropology of play

Throwing a ball, says anthropologist John Fox, "is just profoundly good for us, I think, as humans." CBS

(CBS News) There is one constant this summer, something that has been a part of our lives almost since the day we were born: The simple pleasure of playing with a ball. It's something we probably never think about, so we went to someone who has given the ball a lot of thought - and frankly, Lee Cowan had a ball doing it!

As a Harvard-educated anthropologist, John Fox often wonders about stuff the rest of us just take for granted...

Which is why one day, when he was playing ball with his son Aidan, he had a moment that he couldn't shake.

"He stopped and kind of looked funny, and he said, 'Hey Dad, why do we play ball anyway?'" Fox recalls his son asking. "It was one of those questions where I could have said, 'Hey, you know, go ask your mother.'"

But instead, he chose to write a book.

"The Ball" (HarperCollins) was his 300-page answer to his son's question - what he calls the most kinetically interesting object on the planet.

"In its simplicity, the ball is just profoundly good for us, I think, as humans," Fox said. "There's a reason why it's universal."

The ball is the stuff dreams are made of - before we even know what dreams are.

My first was a fuzzy soccer ball of sorts. I'm told we were inseparable back then. I've never forgotten it.

From our first encounter with the ball, there seems to be a connection. John Doleva sees it every day at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

"I was just down on our center court here and I saw a father roll a ball to his son who was sitting there," Doleva said. "And he got the ball and he rolled it back. So immediately it's one of the first things you can do. You can sit there, the ball can be rolled to you and you can roll it back. It's kind of in our DNA."

But why would a plaything hold such a place in our heart? Maybe it's because it's not the heart a ball affects - it's our brain.

"There's science that's really starting to show that there's more to this," said Fox. "There's a real sort of intellectual benefit and emotional benefit and moral benefit, to playing."

Playing has been proven to improve both our cognitive and social skills. Take lab rats: Studies show those not allowed to play - grew up mentally slow, and socially awkward.

And when it comes to what to play WITH - even our deep sea, deep thinking cousin, the dolphin, choose a ball over anything else.

It's been around for thousands of years. The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt were early fans. They're depicted holding a ball in one hand and a stick in the other - one of the earliest sports pages, perhaps.

"There's indications in the art that by striking these balls he was trying to attack the serpent enemy of the Gods and it was to protect the world and protect the people," Fox said. "Pretty serious ball player!"

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