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Playing seems to make mammals smarter

Alan Braunholtz

My dogs are good at playing games. They have their own styles and tactics of interaction. Calvin at times becomes a canine Rasputin, gold eyes glinting below dark coiled locks as he springs into a bundle of demonic, charismatic energy. Summer hasn’t been so good for the dogs with water sports replacing hiking. I’m waiting for them to make the connection and play chew toy with the kayak. Recently something snapped in Calvin and he refused to let me write. Nose pokes, indignant woofs, bowls rattling around the kitchen and the hair-tingling feel of eyes focused on the back of my neck. He’s very good at it. He’s a pack animal evolved to play.Truthfully, despite work deadlines I never resist too hard. Playing is a lot more fun. When someone who loves you asks to play, it’s really a privilege that should be embraced before the moment passes. Work is always there.Young animals are experts at playing, and it’s where they learn a lot. For dogs, it’s not just how to stalk and hunt and so on, but how to live in a pack. Sociability – controlling and understanding emotions in a social context – is as important as any hard skills.Same with kids, too. I worry that as we focus on academics, we take time away from recess. Outside of school, with distant suburbs and safety concerns, it’s getting harder for children to go to the park and play. Take away unstructured recess, and all kids have left are organized sports where adults tell them what to do. There’s no discovery, negotiation and creation of social rules there, and adults aren’t that fun. Play creates an understanding of a social context that gives a rational framework to our apparently irrational decisions in life. Game theory developed as the mathematical analysis of human decisions, believing we all act as “rational agents.” It has a scary history. At the height of the Cold War the Rand Corp., an influential think tank on military matters, strongly advised President Truman to pre-emptively nuke the USSR. Why? While cooperation, neither side attacking the other, would be most beneficial to both parties, in any exchange the one who pushed last would lose all. Losing through inaction was seen as too risky. Since the Russians would come to the same conclusion, the only logical course was to push the red button ASAP. Fortunately, Truman had played some games of his own as a kid and he thought differently, as did the Soviets. The lessons of recess may have saved the world.People are still trying to find out why we behave as we do, discovering that we all vary and that reward-satisfaction depends on social and emotional, as well as material gains. Cooperation can be hugely satisfying. Profiting at someone else’s expense doesn’t always feel good, and keeping the game stable is important. Good games never finish. There’s always next season. The dominant rule when my dogs play is that no one wins, so the game continues till I drag them home. If it finishes, it wasn’t a game – it was a fight. Overly selfish actions destabilize any game. Taking your ball and going home doesn’t achieve much.If there is a “rational agent” in our behavior, it’s not in any individual brain but in our interactions, which explains why social context is so important in our decisions. Scientists have a new tool in brain scanning. They can now see what parts of the brain light up as people make decisions and choices. I guess the hope is to predict why we do things and perhaps how to influence it. This sounds scary, but if you drink alcohol you are already affecting how your brain makes decisions, changing your normal risk-reward calculations. It’s interesting. Why do people prone to addictions ignore long-term benefits for short-term gain? Does their brain work differently? Why do we pursue wealth so much when we know it’s a game of diminishing returns? Social context explains this as relative versus absolute wealth.Brain scanning is great for seeing which parts of the brain are active and when, but it is much less useful for predicting an individual’s behavior based on how their brain works. There are too many variables for specific predictions. It’s not mind reading, but that probably won’t stop people from trying to use them in the courts, employment, insurance, etc., since they look cool.As any dog or child knows, the easiest way to predict someone’s behavior is to play with them. No brain scan can match that. Interestingly, scans of playing animals show the whole brain lighting up. Play is expensive in energy and risk. Predators catch 80 percent of juvenile fur seals as they frolic. Why do it? Some scientists now believe it builds intelligence and the ability to learn. Play is creative, and young animals will come up with flexible new behavior not seen in adults. The mostly circumstantial evidence includes the timing of youthful play. It coincides with the best time for training a young brain. It’s similar to the age when children pick up languages effortlessly. Only the brainier animals play – mammals and some birds. Species that play tend to act smarter than related ones that don’t. The marsupial wombat is an Einstein compared to the marsupial koala. Koalas don’t play.How strange if the focus on maximizing teaching time for our kids comes at the expense of unstructured play time – and then we find out that this is at least partly what makes kids successful socially and intellectually. Learning doesn’t always require teaching, as my dogs are very happy to tell me.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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