Play and pornography
Like pornography – while I can’t really define exactly what play is, I’m pretty sure I’ll recognize it when I see it.
An article over at The Scientist where Jef Akst writes about play in “lower” animals caught my eye a while back. Akst discusses controversy over what play is and why it evolved.
There’s no broad agreement on how to define play. While most of us will agree that sprightly spaniels and rollicking retrievers are enjoying a kind of play that very much resembles the kind of recreations we humans enjoy, it can a bit more difficult to see that reflection ourselves in the actions of ‘lower’ creatures like reptiles.
Akst writes that:
During a visit to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, biopsychologist Gordon Burghardt decided to peek in on a Nile soft-shelled turtle its keepers affectionately called “Pigface.” Pigface had been a zoo resident for more than 50 years, and Burghardt had seen him before, but this time, he noticed something a bit curious—Pigface was playing basketball.
“It was by itself,” recalls Burghardt, currently at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and “it had started to knock around” a basketball provided by its keepers. The year was 1994, and play had only rarely and anecdotally been reported in animals other than mammals, but he thought that might be what Pigface was doing. The 1-meter-long turtle exuberantly pushed the ball around its aquatic enclosure, swimming through the water with ease as it batted the ball in front of it with its nose. “If you saw a dog or an otter going around batting a ball, bouncing around and chasing it, and going back and forth and doing it over and over again, we’d have no problem calling it play,” he says. “And that’s what the turtle was doing.”
Is a turtle capable of play? Is a lady bug? Is an amoeba?
What kind of mental equipment does an animal need to engage in play and how can we recognize play in animals whose lives and thoughts, whose umwelts, are universes away from ours?
Perhaps it’s appropriate that one of the biggest problems in the study of play is that there isn’t a widely accepted set of formal rules on how to define it. Not deterred by the controversial nature of the topic, Burghardt decided to create a set of criteria to recognize play behavior in non-human species.
Burghardt’s rules for play are:
- Play is not fully functional in the form or context in which it is expressed.
- Play is spontaneous, voluntary, and/or pleasurable, and is likely done for its own sake.
- Play is incomplete, exaggerated, or precocious.
- Play is repeated but not in exactly the same way every time, as are more serious behaviors.
- Play is initiated when animals are well fed, healthy, and free from acute or chronic stressors.
I think it’s interesting note that play, as Burghardt defines it, seems to be exactly the kind of behavior that an emotionally-driven, goal-directed organism would engage in when it had a bit of free time to enjoy. And as I wrote in an earlier post, recent work on the emotional regulation of behavior may provide insight on how the immediate emotional reward of ‘positive’ emotions like joy, success and connection could create an innate ‘play drive’ even in very primitive animals.
In her 2009 article, What Do People Want to Feel and Why? Pleasure and Utility in Emotion Regulation Maya Tamir wrote:
The approach that views emotion regulation as instrumental proposes that what people want to feel depends on both pleasure and utility. When immediate benefits (i.e., immediate pleasure) outweigh long-term benefits (i.e., delayed pleasure derived from successful goal pursuit), people should prefer pleasant emotions. When long-term benefits outweigh immediate ones, people should prefer useful emotions.
If this is true, when we’re in pursuit of a short-term goal we should have an innate drive to do the thing that makes us feel good in the moment. And if you’re a well-fed social animal who feels safe and secure – play would be a fun, and potentially highly adaptive way, to spend that time. Play isn’t just fun, it encourages exploratory behavior. It can provide social advantages. It increases confidence and physical prowess.
And if play evolved largely or, for that matter even partly, as an adaptive way to spend free time, that might explain why we don’t see it as often in tortoises (or lady bugs) as often as we do in terriers. According to Burghardt:
These criteria may explain why play appears to be so much more common in mammalian species, than in reptiles, fish, or invertebrates, Mather says. There are few situations where cold-blooded animals are safe, comfortable, and well fed, as they must constantly deal with regulating their body temperature, avoiding predators, and finding food. Conversely, mammals are warm-blooded and often have extensive periods of parental care, which provide a safe and comfortable childhood. Cold-blooded animals in captivity, on the other hand, may find themselves in much more relaxing settings.
This may also explain why dogs who’ve been rescued from severe neglect or abuse often don’t seem to understand the idea of play. Because these poor beasts have rarely, if ever, been in situations where they were safe, comfortable and well fed — they’ve never had an opportunity to learn how to play.
Another parallel between play and pornography is that both activities can sometimes incorporate a dark or disturbing side. In “Taking Play Seriously” an article published in the New York Times back in February of 2008 Robin Marantz Henig writes:
Sutton-Smith’s 1997 classic, ”The Ambiguity of Play,” reflects in its title his belief that play’s ultimate purpose can be found in its paradoxes. During his years at Columbia’s Teachers College and the University of Pennsylvania, Sutton-Smith, a psychologist and folklorist, took careful note of how play could be destabilizing, destructive or disturbing. He collected renditions of the stories children told in their imaginative or dramatic play, stories of ”being lost, being stolen, being bitten, dying, being stepped on, being angry, calling the police, running away or falling down.” Are these really the thoughts percolating inside our children? And is expressing these thoughts through play somehow good for them? Sutton-Smith called this underbelly of imaginative play part of the ”phantasmagoria,” where children’s thoughts run wild and all the chaotic bits of the real world get tumbled together and pulled haphazardly apart in new, sometimes even scarier confabulations.
Why would such an enriching activity as play also be a source of so much anarchy and fear? Sutton- Smith found one possible answer by reading Stephen Jay Gould, the author and evolutionary biologist. The most highly adaptive organisms, Gould wrote, are those that embody both the positive and the negative, organisms that ”possess an opposite set of attributes usually devalued in our culture: sloppiness, broad potential, quirkiness, unpredictability and, above all, massive redundancy.” Finely tuned specific adaptations can lead to blind alleys and extinction, he wrote; ”the key is flexibility.”
So part of the function of play appears to be to introduce variety and balance to our lives. Given that idea, the fact that play embodies a dark side doesn’t surprise me. There’s no light without dark. Contrast is interesting and it’s informative. You can’t really know what something is until you know what it is not.
Play offers animals a safe way to explore a wide range of the good/bad, gentle/violent, boring/beautiful things in their world. It’s a form of mental feedback that encourages flexible behavior.
And now coming back to the idea of the subjective, value-laden definitions we assign to play and porn – I have to say that now I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of what play is…
Akst, Jef (2010). Recess The Scientist, 24 (10), 44-44
Tamir, M. (2009). What Do People Want to Feel and Why?: Pleasure and Utility in Emotion Regulation Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18 (2), 101-105 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2009.01617.x