Contextual Analysis versus an Immediate-Moment Analysis of the Play Bow
The problem with the current consensus in behaviorism is that while the experts make very reasoned cases for a number of possible explanations for the various acts dogs perform during play, such as rolling over, bowing, grabbing and chasing, they haven’t been able to find a universal to play, which I argue is the same universal that is missing in any discussion of behavior. This omission occurs because the mainstream engages in contextual-analysis rather than immediate-moment analysis. The problem with the former is that it requires that human thoughts be inserted into the animal’s mind, the advantage to the latter is that it does not. An immediate-moment analysis focuses solely on what is observed. No human thoughts are attributed to the dog in interpreting his behavior.
Because contextual analysis cannot identify a universal principle, and because behavior does indeed have one (survival and reproductive interests are human rationales that will ultimately require putting thoughts into the dog’s mind) inevitably contextual analysis resorts to a catch-all category for those behaviors which fail to be categorized. For example, in behaviorism’s examination of aggression the catch-all bin is “idiopathic,” cause unknown. In behavioral discussions of play it’s “just-being-playful”, i.e., “just-for-the-fun-of-it.”
“Rolling over during play is often just playful.”
“Instead, rolling over during play is often just playful.”
“Animals may also play because it's fun -- for the hell of it, because it feels good -- during which time they're also benefiting from engaging in the activity itself.”
If something can be done out of context, just for its own sake, this obliterates contextual analysis as a viable method of interpretation. If rolling over during play is just being playful, then anything could be done in play, even acting dominant. “Sometimes intimidating a playmate out of their wits is just being playful.” ? ? Play for the “fun of it” could just as well be called idiopathic, and then perhaps idiopathic aggression is just for the fun of it as well. If an interpretation of a behavior depends on context, that requires putting human thoughts into a dog’s mind and this doesn’t bring us closer to answering the question, why is fun, fun? It’s self-recursive, fun-is-fun-because-it’s-just-for-fun.
In addition to contextual analysis, the consensus view also consults neuroscience to investigate why play is fun. And of course there are pleasurable neurochemical changes experienced during play which might at first seem to explain the fun in play. But we all recognize that there has to be something going on inside, there has to be an internal mechanics of some kind generating these affects; this has always been obvious but nevertheless good to know the nuts-and-bolts of the feel good states. However this still doesn’t address the question, why are these neurochemicals affiliated with play so that play feels good? What’s the point in playing? Neurochemicals may be the mechanics but they do not suffice as a reason.
Toward the Why of play, the experts talk about the evolutionary advantages to play, specifically that it builds up cognitive and social capacities for solving the problems of adult life. As Marc Bekoff writes:
“Based on an extensive review of available literature, my colleagues Marek Spinka, Ruth Newberry, and I proposed that play functions to increase the versatility of movements and the ability to recover from sudden shocks such as the loss of balance and falling over, and to enhance the ability of animals to cope emotionally with unexpected stressful situations. To obtain this "training for the unexpected" we suggested that animals actively seek and create unexpected situations in play and actively put themselves into disadvantageous positions and situations.”
Yes play increases cognitive development and emotional resiliency but this can’t be a complete explanation. For one thing, dogs play more than any other species, even as aged adults, and yet they are hardly the most cognitively developed species. Why would so much energy be invested in an activity that has a hard cognitive ceiling beyond which the dog is not going to be able to go? Being playful certainly speaks to a high quotient for adaptability, however the dynamic of adaptability is not likely a cognitive capacity. Secondly, were this to provide a complete explanation there wouldn’t be any need for a catchall category. Thirdly, because emotion is preverbal, contextual analysis would need to avoid human thoughts to explain a play bow, as when it postulates in the mind of the bower: “I am inviting you to play with me, my intentions are playful and so you can relax about my actions even if they appear aggressive.” Human words couldn’t possibly articulate what’s going on inside the dog’s mind however that's exactly what contextual analysis must always resort to.
Finally, the contextual approach to play, and the fact that we also must weave neurochemicals into our understanding of play since they are part of the mechanical means of implementation, ends up conflicting with the role neurochemistry is said to play in social dominance systems. If in play animals seek to place themselves into “disadvantageous positions and situations,” in other words they are seeking out the bad emotional affects affiliated with unpleasant neurochemicals, why is this same individual said to avoid at all costs these same neurochemicals when it comes to fitting in socially. In discussions of social hierarchies we are told that animals strive to avoid the bad neurochemicals at all costs by seeking at all times to stay in the feel good zone by acquiring social status and/or control over access to resources. The loss of status means less food, less reproductive success, more bad neurochemically charged emotional affects. So if the drive for status revolves around attaining good emotional affects, how could an individual be driven to seek out negative emotional affects in contravention to that which is said to organize social structure? It’s an abrupt U-Turn in logic, sheer intellectual expediency in order to deal with the problem at hand irrespective of how it contravenes what’s going on in another domain of behavior. The neurochemical logic of play contradicts the neurochemical logic of social life. One rationale is being stacked on and beside others and the internal contradictions between them aren’t being noted.
Bekoff is however pointing to some elements of a model; specifically; “versatility of movements”— and — “recover from sudden shocks such as the loss of balance.” I want to point out here the immutable linkage between balance and movement, an individual can’t be versatile in movement without the capacity to maintain balance. Balance and movement are inseparable, they are the most basic, autonomic level of responses relative to the most basic problems of movement such as dealing with resistance and being acted upon by outside forces. Balance and movement will prove promising seeds of a full blown model when seen through the lens of the immediate-moment.
But to build this model we first have to cast neurochemicals in their proper role as mere mechanics, rather than as source, and then this also means not turning to context to accord meaning (which then necessitates the injection of human thoughts which routes us recursively back to intentional states). I suspect that when in a “disadvantageous position” the so called negative neurochemicals are experienced as pleasurable. This isn’t due to context but due to a principle of conductivity. Anything that’s functional to moving well is pleasurable, and what we perceive of as a “disadvantaged” position will prove to be a part of the experience of conductivity as well. To jump a bit ahead, what we call disadvantaged is a complementary phase of a locomotive wave with one interactant in its movement, manner and deportment mirroring the counterbalancing interactant in its particular phase of movement. The interactant in the so-called “disadvantaged” position, is in reality absorbing the “emotional momentum” of the other interactant. I will concentrate on this in greater detail in a subsequent post on the play bow.
Whenever an animal is stimulated for any reason, be it due to a shift in external conditions or internal state of being, it wants to move. The universal motive underlying all behavior is the urge for movement.
And even when an animal doesn’t feel safe enough to move, nevertheless it still wants to move. Movement and emotion are synonymous. And when things are moving well, one feels good.
Thought experiment; in the dead of winter you’re heading to the airport to jet away to a tropical resort. (Sounds pretty good to a New Englander about now) You’ve allowed for plenty of time and as you hit the highway there’s nothing but open road ahead. Neurochemical status? Great. But halfway there as you merge onto the next interstate you come bumper-to-bumper with a river of red lights stretching endlessly to the far horizon. Mired in an interminable crawl, the allotted window of time begins to close. Neurochemical status now? Not so great. So which comes first, which is instrumental, neurochemicals or the feeling of movement? Which is more explicative: context or conductivity?
Being able to move as fast and as efficiently as possible toward something one wants, or as fast and as efficiently as possible away from something one fears, is the optimal course of action in any given situation. Therefore the mechanics of moving well, a principle of conductivity wherein internal energies are smoothly and efficiently transmitted to the surroundings, be this covering physical ground, manipulating objects or interacting with other sentient beings, serves as an internal metric of well-being. This is even true for the highly developed human intellect. Such expressions as: “I feel things aren’t moving fast enough” —- “I feel that things are in motion.” —— “I feel in the flow.”—— are intuitive recognitions that the bodily mechanics of smooth motion is the metric to which the mind resonates, it is mapped onto intellectual pursuits that don’t even engage the physical body. Even then the physical mechanics of movement serves as a template by which to gage higher forms of mental activity, and this is also why body language is intrinsic to verbal discourse.
The contextual mode of analysis pays lip service to the notion of energy as when Abrantes argues that dominance and submission evolved because it is more efficient to ritualize the resolution of disputes over resources this way rather than waste energy in countless physical skirmishes and/or fights. But this analysis fails to ask the obvious, what does being efficient FEEL like?
The mechanics of smooth, efficient movement and the capacities that extend from there, i.e. the projection, absorption and leveraging of force, is defined by an animal’s anatomy and this evolves according to its species-specific locomotive rhythm (see p.86 of “Design In Nature” by Adrian Bejan). The locomotive rhythm is the optimal resolution of the resistances an organism encounters as it moves. This optimal rhythm, a wave action, determines the size and anatomical arrangement of bones, muscles, and organs because these objects must have a weight, shape, size and internal placement that conforms to the locomotive rhythm as a prime “design” criteria. Additionally the locomotive rhythm is the underpinning of an animal’s sense of emotional well being since moving fast and efficiently toward what one desires, or away from what one fears, is the optimal course of action in any given situation. Emotion and motion are inextricably linked by way of the locomotive rhythm. Transmitting internal energies effectively and efficiently so as to move, manipulate objects or deal with other sentient beings, is what feels good.
The locomotive rhythm is a wave of motion generated by sequential contractions of large muscle groups, the propulsive power of the hindquarters surging through to the forequarters and then transmitted to the neck and jaws———Throughput——this wave is a throughput of force mirrored by the rhythmic mechanics of breathing. This synchronized pulse of anatomical and muscular action creates a wave that the body then rides, literally. This is the physical basis for an emotional sense of movement. In other words, being efficient and socially adaptive FEELS like a wave of motion and is the standard against which all experiences are assayed as a function of their conductivity. The locomotive rhythm is at the heart of emotional experience, a template against which everything that reaches the animal mind is measured. (To be explored later, the mental process of objectification, the manner by which data is construed by the mind to take shape as a form, will also prove to be a function of the locomotive rhythm.)
“Waves are said to be an energy transport phenomenon. As a disturbance moves through a medium from one particle to its adjacent particle, energy is being transported from one end of the medium to the other.”
The locomotive wave is composed of two phases, the projection phase when force is projected ahead of the body, and the collecting phase when the body gathers itself over this forward point to which its physical momentum has committed the body to reach. Once projected forward, collecting has to follow or the rhythm collapses in a heap.
Both phases are characterized with all four feet off the ground, the body suspended in mid-air, literally taking flight for a beat of the heart. These two phases weld two separate points of Space together into the rhythm of the heart, a beat of Time, one wave. Since the locomotive rhythm is synonymous with emotion, therefore emotion is experienced as a wave of motion moving through the body in concordance with the act of running, the mechanics of breathing, the beats of the heart. If an animal can run toward what it wants, and if it can run away from what it fears, then it is at an optimal state of well being given the particular conductivity of a given situation.
Meanwhile, the current consensus on animal cognition focuses on states of intention and this is what leads it to a total concentration on neurology and neurochemistry, human rationales for survival and replication, and thereby completely misses how the body and its highly evolved anatomy is the true metric of experience and the basis for how the animal mind constructs its view of reality and adapts to the forces that act on it, and with which it must generate in order to act on its surroundings in a coherent manner.
What would prove to be a better strategy for gaging one’s survival or reproductive chances, trying to divine the intentional states of others, or the capacity to sense the capacities of others? We should sleep better at night knowing that our military prepares contingency plans not based on what they think the intentions of other military powers might be, but on what they believe about their capacities. The capacity to project force begets opportunities and finding oneself in an opportune position that one has the capacity to exploit can change an intention in an instant. Therefore it's not logical that a dog would read body language such as play bows in terms of intentional states because they are so mercurial. Animals couldn't possibly have evolved to care much about their own intentions or by trying to divine the intentions of others. It only cares about capacity. A gazelle wouldn’t live long if it wandered close to a resting cheetah relying on its reading of its intentions in that situation. All an animal need care about is how fast, how far and with how much force another being can project force its way. This value becomes embedded in its individual memory and ultimately within its genetic memory. If one walks through the wild no animals will venture close because of the human capacity to project force, whatever intentions one may hold are irrelevant even though we'd all delight in a lovely songbird alighting on our finger.
Note that the flight distances of animals relative to human beings have changed in response to the capacity of humans to project force via the evolution of human weaponry. When I used to hunt deer with my father in Maine, on our way into camp on the Sunday before hunting season we’d see deer browsing in the vast blueberry fields that adjoined the camp road before it disappeared into the forest. That sight always stirred me for the prospects of the hunt to come. But then Monday morning when hunting season began, a deer was never to be seen in the open during the day again. Two solid weeks of cruising the woods rarely produced a sighting of a deer, only their sign. The deer had adapted to our seasonal capacity to project force via a high powered rifle. Another experiment I once conducted when I was a teenager was to try to carry a rifle near a “murder” of crows who always gathered around the compost pile my father had behind the barn. When I went to dump manure from the stalls with the inevitable scraps of hay seeds, grain as well as stuff from my mothers’ kitchen, the crows would noisily clammer and hawk around the trees overhead. But when I carried a rifle in my free hand, and even when I later tucked it out of sight under my coat, they would be long gone as soon as I made my approach. That was my introduction to how sensitive the animal mind is to another’s capacity to project force.
Were one tasked to build a robot, the first order of business would be imbuing it with the capacity to project force, to absorb force, and if one were really good at building a robot, to couple its force with an amplifying force so that it could project, absorb and leverage even more force. Every posture, facial expression, and physical action, as well as internal biochemistry, is the language of an individual’s capacity to project, leverage, absorb and couple to force.
Behavior is a transfer of force, and in the case of play, a refined coupling of force. The FORCE that a reinFORCEMENT exerts on behavior, is due to the degree of FORCE that a particular behavior transfers. The mechanics of this transfer is a wave action. Play, among many other kinds of behavior, finds its reinforcement value because it represents an amplification of force. The evolutionary advantage? This increases the capacity to project, absorb and leverage even more force.
It is inarguable that evolution proceeds according to capacity because the movement of physical forces is the very basis of the natural environment to which an animal must adapt. Therefore projecting, absorbing and leveraging force in a conductive medium feels good because this is how nature itself evolves. This is why play is fun. Neurochemistry follows.
In the next article on the play bow we will consider how if the bow isn't an invitation that can be articulated by way of human thoughts, then how does the bow posture draw another dog in? And for what reason is the play bower manifesting the display. In other words, why does it function like an invitation?