Zeal for Play May Have Propelled Human Evolution

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When it comes to play, humans don’t play around.


Other species play, but none play for as much of their lives as humans do, or as imaginatively, or with as much protection from the family circle. Human children are unique in using play to explore hypothetical situations rather than to rehearse actual challenges they’ll face later. Kittens may pretend to be cats fighting, but they will not pretend to be children; children, by contrast, will readily pretend to be cats or kittens — and then to be Hannah Montana, followed by Spider-Man saving the day.

And in doing so, they develop some of humanity’s most consequential faculties. They learn the art, pleasure and power of hypothesis — of imagining new possibilities. And serious students of play believe that this helps make the species great.

The idea that play contributes to human success goes back at least a century. But in the last 25 years or so, researchers like Elizabeth S. Spelke, Brian Sutton-Smith, Jaak Panksepp and Alison Gopnik have developed this notion more richly and tied it more closely to both neuroscience and human evolution. They see play as essential not just to individual development, but to humanity’s unusual ability to inhabit, exploit and change the environment.

Written By: David Dobbs
continue to source article at nytimes.com

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  1. I really liked the title and the general tone of this article, but the experiment described is just a simple exercise in deduction. All the information required to solve the puzzle is provided, there is no hypothesising involved.

    • In reply to #1 by Peter Grant:

      I really liked the title and the general tone of this article, but the experiment described is just a simple exercise in deduction. All the information required to solve the puzzle is provided, there is no hypothesising involved.

      How does deduction work if it doesn’t involve hypothesising? Perhaps we have different notions of the definitions of those two terms.

      In any case, what was neat about the article is how it shows a bright 5 year old outsmarting the reporter.

      • In reply to #7 by OHooligan:

        How does deduction work if it doesn’t involve hypothesising? Perhaps we have different notions of the definitions of those two terms.

        Like math, 2 + 2 = 4. There is no guessing and then testing of potential solutions.

        In any case, what was neat about the article is how it shows a bright 5 year old outsmarting the reporter.

        Agreed. What is even more remarkable is how the child is much more logical. It seems that education not only stifles creativity, but our most basic abilities to reason as well.

        • In reply to #8 by Peter Grant:

          In reply to #7 by OHooligan:

          How does deduction work if it doesn’t involve hypothesising? Perhaps we have different notions of the definitions of those two terms.

          Like math, 2 + 2 = 4. There is no guessing and then testing of potential solutions.

          In any case, what was neat about the article is ho…

          Peter, I kind of agree with you that the article isn’t clear about how creativity is involved in the experiment carried out. My explanation of this fact would be that the logic used by the child is an innate, loose “fuzzy” logic based on association. The adult is the more strictly logical, trained to be so, and wielding the less innate/accessible “or” concept which is less fuzzy and higher discrimination . It is the fuzziness of the former that facilitates creativity. In dealing with most logical problems the adult would win. This test is set up to show this unusual exception.

          • In reply to #9 by phil rimmer:

            What’s fuzzy about this?

            First, Ms. Bridgers put each of three clay shapes on the box individually — rectangle, then triangle, then a bridge. None activated the machine. Then she put them on the box in three successive combinations.

            1. Rectangle and triangle: No response.

            2. Rectangle and bridge: Machine lighted up and played a tune!

            3. Triangle and bridge: No response.

            We can even represent it as a truth table:

            r t b tune

            T F F F

            F T F F

            F F T F

            T T F F

            T F T T

            F T T F

            r ∧ b → tune

          • In reply to #10 by Peter Grant:

            In reply to #9 by phil rimmer:

            What’s fuzzy about this?

            The problem is not fuzzy in any sense. It is complete and has a formal solution. I should not have chosen fuzzy though to describe the children’s approach. Partial or incomplete would have been better.

            You are told “I have my machine. Blicketness makes my machine turn on and play music.” You are not told about the “and” rule. You are shown-

            r t b tune

            T T F F

            T F T T

            F T T F

            as input.

            The kids make the unusual hypothesis of an “and” rule. It explains the tune happening, at which point they simply stop. They are not troubled (it would seem by their speed of response) by the fact that blickets were clearly put on the machine on other occasions and failed to register. This is not formal logic at work because, I suspect they could not complete the truth table.

            I am further suggesting that “and” hypotheses are a natural mode for young children to work in because that is the native operating system of new born brains*. So unlike the article which claims simply that all manner of hypotheses are formed by young children I am proposing particularly that associative hypotheses are particularly readily formed.

            *Hebbian learning (cells that fire together wire together) happens quickly but the converse (non synchronous firing weakens connections) is slow to happen. Spurious accumulations, superstitious habits accumulate

          • In reply to #11 by phil rimmer:

            So neither children nor most adults are thinking logically, both are just operating blindly on simple heuristics produced by game theory? That’s even more depressing.

  2. I worked for a while with Dr. John Lilly on Project Janus communicating with dolphins. Joe was a “teenage” male dolphin. He decided on his own to learn to balance a ball under his chin under water. It took him about a week to master the skill.

  3. The “and” mode is a more primitive mode I would argue, arising out of the naturally associative nature of brains. The “or” mode is more a learned cultural logic mode for the older child and powerful quick. (The brain does have a dissociative wiring mode which is much slower in its changes relying on an absence of associative stimulation. I have argued elsewhere that this mode is sufficient to pump prime the creation of language embodying these important logical concepts). Creativity arises out of the associative mode when (associated) metaphor and analogy may transfer, wholesale, viable missing parts to some partial mental construct or other.

    In other outrageous pet theories I argue (as do others) that England (particularly) invented childhood as an indulged and leisured period (at least for the middling classes) through the seventeenth and into the eighteenth centuries. In this period parental spending on children quadrupled, toy making blossomed and the first childrens books were written. Children were seen for the first time not as imperfect miniature adults but as possessing worthwhile attributes of their own. They started to be painted properly only a hundred or so years earlier. Visitors from other countries often noted disapprovingly of this wasteful and spoiling indulgence of our kids.

    I argue this particular indulgence, this freedom and encouragement to play, along with a more general education rather than specific training, may be one of the contributing factors for Britain’s head start in the Industrial Revolution.

  4. Unfortunately, I would need to sign into the NY times in order to read the article.

    (Phil) “The ‘and’ mode … arising out of the naturally associative nature of brains…Creativity arises out of the associative mode when (associated) metaphor and analogy may transfer, wholesale, viable missing parts to some partial mental construct or other.”

    Making connections between two unrelated objects, ideas, etc. is at the heart of creativity and innovation. It is, at times, seeing something for another use or purpose than what it was originally intended. Creativity also involves a certain level of vulnerability since making mistakes, changes, and adaptations are necessary in order present a view to others which may be different from what others are used to and expected. To be creative means to put your face on the line and risk being laughed at and shunned. Children are not concerned about being taken “seriously” and will usually set about creating stuff because they make the process spontaneous or even silly. They could even be just curious. Then around Eleven or so, this shifts for some kids. Suddenly, a child who used to pull out crayons and draw anything becomes intimidated. Dressing in a sheet with tissues stuck in each nostril and playing air guitar with their tennis racket now becomes embarrassing due to their peer’s reaction. They now tend to think more about the process – realize their limitation in skill and are hindered from looking bad, making mistakes, etc. For some children, they will manage to keep a sense of experimentation, discovery alive while dealing with the responses of being socially unacceptable. As they mature into adults, they build knowledge and skill while maintaining a sense of play or curiosity. When this open sense of experimentation and curiosity is coupled with intelligence and skill, innovation can be the result.

    One of the biggest killers of creativity is the desire to edit oneself and/or seek comfort and stability. Lack of leisure also seems to be an issue. I wonder if there are any studies of children in cultures that take on adult roles early compared to cultures in which children are under parental care for a longer period of time. I would guess that children from impoverished countries that become parents at a young age tend to be less creative and less progressive with new ideas. So I think I can partially agree with you Phil.

    • In reply to #4 by QuestioningKat:

      Unfortunately, I would need to sign into the NY times in order to read the article.

      (Phil) “The ‘and’ mode … arising out of the naturally associative nature of brains…Creativity arises out of the associative mode when (associated) metaphor and analogy may transfer, wholesale, viable missing par…

      I go along with your timing about the loss of confident individual exploring, as kids move from being the doted-on pre-pubescent to the striking-out early-teen, subject to near crippling peer pressure.

      I also agree that the kicking in of the reality principle (as good a term as any), the need to fend for oneself and others, must result in more conservative and less risky and wasteful behaviours and this must vary through societies.

      In my case I was lucky to fall in with a bunch of creative early-teens (and in the sixties too.) My risky and wasteful behaviours have never deserted me. It is to be noted that that arch hippy Richard Neville, the former editor of Oz Magazine in the UK in his book Play Power posited that cultural evolution would seem to be leading us into further and further extending periods of play, and a sort of behavioural neoteny.

  5. Here’s an example of the kind of inductive leap involved in science:

    Hypothetically, one could use the two already identified blickets in conjunction with the music box to detect anti-blickets, if they exist.

    • In reply to #11 by phil rimmer:

      OK, now I see where the confusion lies. You thought I added data to the table and I thought you took it away. Sorry about that, I should have been clearer. The table in #10 represents only the information provided in the experiment as quoted. We can infer that the music box did not play without any shapes in it so:

      r t b tune

      F F F F

      Also, it was mentioned elsewhere in the article, but not in the experiment, that if all three shapes where added the tune would play, so:

      r t b tune

      T T T T

      However, as I alluded to in #14, a more interesting result would have been:

      r t b tune

      T T T F

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