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Why play?

Why play?
The mysterious gain of brain function from play

Loss of function analyses of play behavior have failed. For decades biologist have tried to determine the function of play by so called play deprivation experiments. However, the effects of such play deprivation are in many instances very subtle. The most obvious behavioral deficit from play-deprivation was a loss in the ability to play. A turning point in the analysis of play effects came, when one of our PIs (Daphne Bavelier) started focusing on gains of brain function associated with intense playing. This research approach, firmly grounded in quantitative psychophysics, revealed benefits of intense playing on a wide variety of cognitive functions. Thus, within a few years the question about the function of play changed from “what is it good for?” to “how can play possibly be so beneficial for the brain?” This is the question we try to answer.

A neglected problem in neuroscience and computation

Play has been of interest to many psychologists and biologists. Such interest should not blind one for the fact that neuroscience has so far failed to uncover the neural mechanisms of playful learning. We do not know what is happening in the brains of playing animals. We have collected data about neural activity in visual cortex in tens of thousands of studies, but not a single one describes visual cortical activity during play. Numerous studies have investigated learning in operant conditioning tasks, but there is a big dearth of data, when it comes to neural data referring to playful learning. The same holds for computational analyses of learning. The recent success of brute force deep learning approaches, that rely on our most powerful computer technologies and gigantic labeled data sets, obviously bears little resemblance to the swift and easily transferable learning occurring in playing brains.

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