Academic journal article American Journal of Play

How Play Makes for a More Adaptable Brain: A Comparative and Neural Perspective

Academic journal article American Journal of Play

How Play Makes for a More Adaptable Brain: A Comparative and Neural Perspective

Article excerpt

Studies of rats and some primates show that rough-and-tumble play among juveniles improves social competence, cognition, and emotional regulation later in life. Most critically, such play makes animals better able to respond to unexpected situations. But not all animals engage in play, and not all animals that play appear to gain these benefits. Using a model developed by Burghardt (2005), the authors argue that there are enabling conditions-such as how behavior systems develop and the presence of surplus resources-that make play-like behavior possible. Once such behavior emerges, other enabling conditions help transform it into more exaggerated patterns of play that can be co-opted for various functions. For species living in complex social systems with an extended juvenility, play has become a tool to refine the control that the prefrontal cortex has over other neural circuits. Such control permits these animals to have more nuanced responses to a variety of situations. In short, the juvenile experience of play refines the brain to be more adaptable later in life. Key words: comparative studies; developmental benefits of play; play and adaptability; play in the animal kingdom

Introduction

There is growing experimental evidence that play in rats, especially social play, serves an important developmental role. It helps refine social skills (Byrd and Briner 1999; van den Berg et al. 1999), improve the regulation of emotions (da Silva et al. 1996; von Frijtag et al. 2002), and enhance executive functions (Baarendse et al. 2013) by modifying the neural mechanisms that underlie them (Bell, Pellis, and Kolb 2010; Himmler, Pellis, and Kolb 2013). Data on several primate species (e.g., Kalcher-Sommersguter et al. 2011; Kempes et al. 2008), including humans (Lindsey and Colwell 2013; Pellegrini 1995), are consistent with these findings. In essence, the experience of play in the juvenile period pro- vides a context within which young animals can experience loss of control and deal with unpredictable events (Pellis, Pellis, and Foroud 2005), but do so in a rewarding setting (Panksepp 1998; Vanderschuren 2010). This appears to enable animals to train to deal with the unexpected vicissitudes of life (Pellis, Pellis, and Reinhart 2010; Spinka, Newberry, and Bekoff 2001). But before we explore how such play-induced brain changes can help make animals better at dealing with the life's uncertainties, we need to answer a more fundamental question.

We should be bear in mind that the animal kingdom consists of about thirty phyla that represent major groupings based on the unique features of each phylum's body plan. Consider the difference in body organization between an insect like an ant and a vertebrate like a dog. The division of body parts, the number and placement of the legs, the location and organization of the ner- vous and circulatory systems all differ in fundamental ways (Tudge 2002). An exhaustive review of the literature has shown that play occurs in only five of the thirty phyla (Burghardt 2005). For example, play appears in many species in the phylum Chordata, which includes people, dogs, and ravens and some species of the phylum Arthropoda, which contains insects (like ants), crustaceans (like shrimp), and arachnids (like spiders). We dot not find play, however, in the phylum Echinodermata, which contains starfish and sea urchins, or the phylum Annelida, which includes earthworms and leeches. Indeed, even in the phyla containing species that play, not all the species in those phyla play. For instance, researchers report that in Chordata only some in the subphylum Vertebrata (those creatures with a vertebral column like humans and fish) play, and among these vertebrates, play seems fairly common in many lineages of mammals, less common but present in some lineages of birds, but rare among other groups like amphibians, reptiles, or fish. In this context, we are left to wonder why play, which seems important to training some animals to be more adaptable and resilient, is so rare in the animal kingdom? …

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