Study shows how play helps brain development

Published: 15 June 2017 at 09:00

Two chimpanzees with their arms around each other.

New research led by Anglia Ruskin scientists is published in the journal Primates

A new study published on Thursday, 15 June in the journal Primates indicates why play has such an important role in the development of the brain in different species.

The research, led by Anglia Ruskin University research student Max Kerney, is the first to show a positive association between the amount of play exhibited by different primate species and the relative size of a part of the brain responsible for cognitive and behavioural skills.

The study used existing data sets to compare brain sizes with the average amount of time various primate species spend playing and the different levels of social play exhibited.

On average chimpanzees spend 14% of their time involved in play.  However, the figure is much lower for other primate species such as the Venezuelan red howler monkey (1%) and the red-tailed monkey (2%). 

The research found that primates that play more have a relatively larger cortico-cerebellar system, which is a major projection system in the primate brain that enables skills such as complex foraging, tool use and sociality.  It is believed that the repetitive “experimental” activity characteristic of play may serve to train and maintain these skills.

Max Kerney is supervised by Dr Jacob Dunn, a Senior Lecturer in Zoology at Anglia Ruskin University and a co-author on the paper.  Kerney said: 

“Play behaviour in humans and other animals is often dismissed as mere frivolity, with no particular function beyond the joy that it brings.  However, mounting evidence suggests that play may in fact have evolved to support the development of cognitive and behavioural skills in primates. 

“Our new study significantly extends the support for a link between play and cognition by finding, for the first time, evidence that play has not only evolved in close association with particular neural structures, but also with an extensive neural system known to be fundamental to complex cognitive and behavioural abilities: the cortico-cerebellar system. 

“Specifically, we found that primate species with larger cortico-cerebellar systems tend to play more.  We hope that this finding will stimulate people to reconsider the potential importance of play in the natural world, and in our own societies.”