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Dynamic Cognition, on the meaning of play.

Since the rise of the social network in the last 10 years an interesting concentration and variety of human interactions have been enabled on the fluid and instant media of the social sphere. This media have allowed people to build and cross pollinate their existing social graphs with other people located in disparate regions of the world but also located in disparate cultural and social spaces. The access to all forms of information and the sharing of content related to that information is allowing us to present to each other novel truths that otherwise would not be within our radar and thus would not be available to expand the perspective we have of not just our friends but also of the ideas and truths being presented in the content they share.

Thus in a very real way we stand to be subject to a greater ability to learn about things in the world outside our local bubbles and that I posit is a net good. In several articles in the past I've talked about the powerful glue that social networks potentially harbor for closing the gap of "the other" on a global basis and how that tendency may very well be the perfect inoculation to our otherwise stubborn tendency to demonize that which we don't understand or are not aware of, to build empathy between us.

In other postings I've written about the necessity of mastering multiple mountains and mastering the meta in order to attune ourselves intimately to the reasons others have for presenting information as well as to align ourselves with the cognitive atoms of abstraction that they utilize in order to conceive and relay information to others.

Content presented through the social systems we now have has opened our eyes to analysis of the interactions of other humans in the ways mentioned previously but also, by showing us the interaction of non human animals has also allowed us to see another side of life...or rather, to more clearly see the humanity that exists in other forms of life entirely. This is so because now more than ever via the presentation of video clips on youtube, vine and Facebook and Google+ we dramatically increase our visibility into the actions being performed by our non speaking planet mates and some of  us are learning brand new things about animal interactions with one another, in particular we are seeing how play is intimately tying us in a bond of familiarity with non human mammals, avians and even some reptiles. Eyes are being opened to the complex mind states of our feathered and furry friends by having these examples of their interactions injected into the view of people who otherwise would probably not be privy to the existence of the behaviors.

Behold, a snow surfing crow:

For reasons previously described I think this is a hugely important event and one which will only strengthen our bond with other living things, an outcome I posit must be enabled if we are to avoid some sort of human induced catastrophe on the part of humans who are not as attuned to the humanity in our fellow animals as we are as a result of our seeing the content of animal interactions that social networks make possible.

Play fuels the mind

One of my heroes Albert Einstein often spoke on the power of play in cognitive pursuits to allow the triggering of new insights and expand understanding. He wrote:

"Play is the highest form of research."

: A quote which stands out for a few reasons to me, first he describes it as research , an investigation of possibilities in a given sector of experiences. This doesn't isolate only cognitive pursuits however...research is conducted by a dancer exploring movements on the dance floor, a football player catching balls in the field and a bird testing the lift capability of it's feathered wings. So play is indeed in the same category as research but what then distinguishes play from research if they are not in fact the same exact thing? I assert that distinguishing factor is salience. How do we feel about our results as we engage in this cognitive or physical research called play.

Thus I assert that Play = Salience + Research

Where salience is the combined set of emotional and autonomic success cues that our bodies and brains reward us with when our research has achieved a desired goal during the course of play. For example, let's consider how while practicing on a piano, the initial frustrations derive from attempting and failing to achieve certain movements with the correct precision and our brains map the correct physical actions to the desired outcome our bodies and brains tie salience rewards to those movements. In our bodies the distributed network that is our physical embodiment of intelligence strengthen networks of response across our fingers, hands and upper arms...allowing us to cascade trigger the "trained" responses necessary to emerge the over all correct sequence while playing a given piece of music.

The efficiency of this process enabled by abstractions across these networks that allow them to be triggered at amazing speed. Ultimately playing back a piece we've been practicing is not an act of just doing it is an act of remembering and coupled with the positive factors that our bodies produced to keep us on task , to tell us "this is how it should be" we re-experience the joy of success we originally had while playing.

Play drives the mind and builds the self

In the brain these positive factors are the neurotransmitters that flow our brains and our released precisely to indicate when things are either going right or wrong. The hypothesis of the salience theory is that these low level chemical flows define the basis of orthogonal drive factors and from these drive factors emerge the importance measures that tell us when some action should or should not be taken as judged by comparison of an incoming sensation (be it visual or auditory or gustatory etc) as evaluated against some stored memory in the same sensation dimension that is judged to have a similar pattern. It is through millions of these comparison events that we retune our neural networks across all our sensory dimensions and this process requires great deals of training.....that training is what we call play.

The beauty of this process is that not only does it enable us under the guidance of these low level simple import factors emerge the ability to learn, to research by doing or thinking ...where "doing" is tasting, smelling, seeing, touching, hearing and what ever other senses we may possess but it inherently ties those activities to experiencing which itself are the rewards or punishments that the salience sub system labels our "play" outcomes as continuously.

Second to this but likely more important is that the cognitive cycle is moved by this process, I assert that every thought you have is driven in this way and the sequence of evaluations of these mini moments of play in every dimensional context of our experience is what makes us conscious. Thus consciousness is an indirect result of what happens when low level chemical signals are given out as rewards or punishments as we "research" comparisons between incoming sensation and previously stored memory across all the areas in which we are able to sample the world. This cycle being one performed as meaningfully by rats as by cats, as intently by a new born fawn as by a wolf or bird or any other animal.

So here we are on the social web privy to all forms of content recording the play states of not just other people in remote cultures but also of other animals, more able to see the experiences of other animals play out, to witness the evolution of their cognitive processes and the similarity of those processes at the deepest level to our own, in this recognition building empathy to the life experiences of these fellow thinkers that hopefully will bring us closer to a recognition of our obligation to their experiences in our personal relationships with our pets and other animals but in the distal relationship we all share on this planet as shared life citizens, to me this stands as a most beautiful truth enabled by social media, one that we need more and more people to harness as we are the stewards of this planet of life at play.


Unknown said…
When people play as a form of research, what rules and restrictions, if any, should exist?

What cultural, economic, or other influencers will stimulate and encourage intellectual growth beyond the barriers?

I think that creativity abounds when some restrictions exist, and a different outcome occurs when there are no such limitations. The evolution of plant life on Catalina Island shows that biology produces innovations in a similar manner.

Dan Pink has an interesting take on this as well...

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