the psychology of primate play

Last week I had to change my topic for a semester-long research project in my experimental psychology class. There are two weeks left in the semester. Awesome. (That’s a sarcastic “awesome,” by the way.)

The new topic is how play behaviors contribute to the lifespan development of primates, physically and socially. I’m lucky that I have data gathered from my trip to Rwanda last summer. Still, I’m a bit stressed right now. And I cannot wait until this semester is over.

~

Anyway, this is a cool topic. I’m pretty much in love with it. What is the purpose of play? Why do we do it? For fun! But why is it fun? Why does it have such universal appeal, and why do children play the same ways all over the world? We’re learning that play actually does serve a developmental and evolutionary purpose. It isn’t just fun. And that is really interesting.

Let’s talk cognitive ecology. That’s the study of how a species’ cognitive patterns are shaped by the specific problems presented by its habitat. We must try to understand the problems presented in the species’ habitat – what predators they have to evade, what dietary needs they have to meet, how their locomotion is determined by their physical environment  – and we must try to understand the solutions possible and the solutions utilized by the species. These points of study (which are only some examples of ecological problems faced by any given species) give us windows into the cognitive patterns of that species. If we can figure out why a species utilizes one solution over another for a specific problem, we begin to understand the cognitive patterns and priorities of that species.

So why study play? Play is a window to cognition, too. Studying cognition is never a direct process, even with human subjects. With non-human primates, or any animal, it’s even more problematic. In a sense, we are reduced to using Skinner’s Behavioralism in order to study the cognition of non-human primates. We can only observe behavior, we cannot ask them what they’re thinking (generally speaking; Koko the gorilla doesn’t count, in this case). Play is important for this, because – hypothetically – it patterns adult behavior and prepares immature animals to meet the challenges they will face as adults of their species. Now, if that hypothesis were accurate, then we could expect to see evidence of that.

…more to follow.

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