Play as a self-teaching behaviour

Fig. 3: Beneficial effects of video action games on visual performance.
(A) Scene from the video action game Counterstrike (modified from Wikipedia). (B) Visual localization performance of video-game-players (black squares) and non-video-game-players (open circles) (modified from Green & Bavelier, 2003). By all standards the psychophysical performance improvements from video game playing are astounding. The BrainPlay grant seeks to explore the neural basis of such effects.

Play behavior and the brain

While it is easy to recognize fitness advantages of other evolutionary conserved behaviors such as sexual behaviors, maternal behaviors or antagonistic behaviors, such advantages are less obvious for play behavior. A central idea driving our research is that play evolved as a brain self- teaching mechanism. In line with this idea juveniles play much more than adults, there is a positive correlation between brain size and playfulness (Iwaniuk et al. 2001) and there is an absolutely unmatched elaboration of human play. What is play? A key element of play is that it is “not serious outside of ordinary life” (Huizinga, 1949). Play behavior transposes ordinary activities to a play context. Play behaviors are modified from their real life counterparts, play attacks differ in systematic ways from serious fighting (Pellis & Pellis, 1987). Laughter might have evolved to communicate joy in ‘play’ (Grammer & Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1990).

Deficits from play-deprivation and brain gains from play

It is very difficult to deprive animals in a meaningful way from play. In work, in which rats were raised not in social isolation, but in the company of non-playful adults suggested that play experience results in increased resilience to social adversity. Still, the study of play deprivation has only led to a limited set of findings. A different route to study play was taken by Bavelier and colleagues, when they studied the benefits of increased play experience in computer games. This analysis revealed a host of cognitive benefits from gaming (Green & Bavelier, 2003). Such cognitive benefits might be key to understanding play (Fig. 3).

Play and its neural mechanisms is an outlawed topic

At the neuronal level play is one of the least studied forms of all brain activity. The absence of data reflects deeply rooted research biases against play. In the sixteenth century play was prohibited under the rule of Calvin in Geneva. Behaviorism with its focus on stimulus reward contingencies was profoundly unable to cope with the purposelessness of play. Modern neuroscience is obsessed with behavioral control, which collides with the study of play.

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