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Posts Tagged ‘dreaming’

Playing in the snow, Rhode Island, December 2020.

One of the many downsides of this dratted pandemic is that, for some schools, snow days are a thing of the past. My Massachusetts grandchildren had school online after the blizzard. The Rhode Island ones were told to go out and play. Play matters.

Andreas Wagner writes at Nautilus, “Because thinking minds are different from evolving organisms and self-assembling molecules, we cannot expect them to use the same means … to overcome deep valleys in the landscapes they explore. But they must have some way [and] one of the most important is play.

“I don’t mean the rule-based play of a board game or the competitive play of a soccer match, but rather the kind of freewheeling, unstructured play that children perform with a pile of LEGO blocks or with toy shovels and buckets in a sandbox. I mean playful behavior without immediate goals and benefits, without even the possibility of failure.

“Play is so important that nature invented it long before it invented us. Almost all young mammals play, as do birds like parrots and crows. … The world champion of animal play may be the bottlenose dolphin, with 37 different reported types of play. Captive dolphins will play untiringly with balls and other toys, and wild dolphins play with objects like feathers, sponges, and ‘smoke rings’ of air bubbles that they extrude from their blowholes. …

“Where the benefits of play have been measured, they can make the difference between life and death. The more feral horses from New Zealand play, for example, the better they survive their first year. Likewise, Alaskan brown bear cubs that played more during their first summer not only survived the first winter better, but also had a better chance to survive subsequent winters.

“Some purposes of such play have nothing to do with mental problem solving. When horses play, they strengthen their muscles, and that very strength can help them survive. When lion cubs play-fight, they prepare for the real fights. … In mammals, play goes beyond mere practice of a stereotypical behavior, like that of a pianist rehearsing the same passage over and over again. When mammals stalk, hunt, and escape, they find themselves in ever-new situations and environments. …

Play creates diverse behaviors, regardless of whether that diversity is immediately useful. It prepares the player for the unexpected in an unpredictable world.

“That very flexibility can also help the smartest animals solve difficult problems. A 1978 experiment demonstrated its value for young rats. In this experiment, some rats were separated from their peers for 20 days by a mesh in their cage, which prevented them from playing. After the period of isolation, the researchers taught all the rats to get a food reward by pulling a rubber ball out of the way. They then changed the task to a new one where the ball had to be pushed instead of pulled. Compared to their freely playing peers, the play-deprived rats took much longer to try new ways of getting at the food and solving this problem. …

“One hallmark of play is that it suspends judgment so that we are no longer focused on selecting good ideas and discarding bad ones. That’s what allows us to descend into the valleys of imperfection to later climb the peaks of perfection. But play is only one means to get there.”

Read more, including ideas on the role of dreams and mind-wandering (sometimes called incubation), at Nautilus, here.

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