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a theory of mind

by Bernard De Koven on December 28, 2012

I think that, to fully grasp the scope and power of play, we need to go beyond ourselves, to learn to include other, stranger players. Some of the teachers who have helped me understand the true breadth of the field of play are students of animal behavior. People like Marc Bekoff and Jonathan Balcombe, for example, who help us understand animals as feeling beings, are amply represented on this site. Today, I am pleased to introduce Analee Newitz, another student of animal behavior, who, in her article “Corvids: The Birds Who Think Like Humans,” brings us evidence of yet another connection to another species of players. That connection: the possibility that they, like us, have minds. Not just brains, but, like us, minds. Here’s a taste of her thinking, from a much longer article that I hope will move you as it has myself:

“…crows and other corvids have a theory of mind, which allows them to understand and anticipate the behavior of other creatures around them. This is why, for example, crows are able to figure out that it’s a good idea to scavenge for food on the Seattle ferry between cars — they’ve seen people toss food out the windows before, and anticipate they’ll do it again. It’s why scrub jays know that the crows are watching them to try to steal their peanuts. Crows also use tools, bending sticks to turn them into hooks for retrieving food.

“They play, as you can see from this video of a crow surfing on a snowy roof in Russia.

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“And they’ll even feed other animals, as this pet crow does with his dog and cat pals.

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“Their highly-developed brains — different from mammal’s but no less complex — seem capable of planning for the future (caching), guessing at motivations and acting accordingly (re-caching food) and problem solving (tool use).

“Do crows, jays and other corvids share with humans the ability to know themselves and know other creatures too? Or are they merely acting on instinct, which we mistake for more complex thought patterns? It’s impossible to say for certain. But there is no doubt that they are extremely intelligent, social animals, who count humans among those creatures they are willing to trust.”

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animals, pleasure and fun

by Bernard De Koven on January 11, 2012

Ethologist Jonathan Balcombe, a scientist and teacher who writes clearly and often passionately about the emotional life of animals, has written another important piece sharing his insights about the strong possibility that animals experience pleasure. Because he is a scientist, and only reluctantly accepted by the scientific community as a legitimate scholar and researcher, he doesn’t dare use the word “fun” in connection with animal emotions, probably because the idea that animals can experience pleasure is radical and, to many of those in the meat farming and packing industries, positively threatening.

In a recent article, Dr. Balcombe includes the following video

He comments:

Biologists are quick to pin adaptive, survival-driven explanations on these avian flights of fancy (check out the narration on the video). The birds are increasing predator vigilance; they are heating up their bodies for the cold night ahead; they are sorting out their dominance hierarchies before selecting the best roosting spots, etc.

Who are they kidding. These birds don’t have to do this. Barnes, an experienced birdwatcher, gets it right: “It’s a joyous thing to watch: and perhaps it’s joyous for the birds as well … I suspect that flying in these extraordinary formations is a thrilling thing to do and is a reward for the hard work of flying in 20 miles from the foraging ground. It’s a treat to end the day with: a celebration.”

To me, understandably, it’s all about fun. These birds are having fun, sharing fun, creating fun. And yes, they’re probably celebrating, but that’s another post altogether.

Maybe this post is the one in which we should consider the connections between pleasure and fun. Because, as Dr. Balcombe so clearly points out, animals most definitely experience pleasure, and in acknowledging that, we become fellow pleasure-seekers, humans and animals, and that much more strongly connected. But fun is an even stronger connection, it seems to me – one that even Dr. Balcombe finds it difficult to make. So, since I’m not a scientist, I’ll make it for all of us.

Pleasure is most definitely fun. Fun is not always pleasurable or even pleasant, but pleasure, pleasure is always fun. It’s the reward. In fact, I might even say the reward. The other side of the -pain continuum. The arch motivator. And, as I frequently say, the same thing can be said about fun. We have made an art out of pleasure. Refined it, framed it, put it on pedestals, created philosophies and dedicated our lives to it. Fun, not so much. Maybe because fun is not as easy to capture, or put in museums, or maybe because fun is not something we respect or value, even though, as I am so quick to point out, fun is “why you do what you do when you don’t have to do it.”

So, therefore, and hence, it is my considered opinion and fundamental conclusion that animals most definitely have fun, and, furthermore, more further than that; my avowed suspicion that they, given the opportunity, have at least as much fun as we do.

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animal play

November 8, 2011

In his blog, One Green Planet, Jonathan Balcombe writes: “Have you ever gazed thoughtfully up at the vast night sky and wondered: ‘Are we alone?’ Well, wonder no more, because we’re not alone. We live among an astonishing array of consciously aware, emotional life-forms right here on this one green planet.” In that post, he includes […]

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Hedonic ethology – the New York Times exults over the Exultant Ark

August 2, 2011

Two ring-tailed lemurs, perhaps a pair, perhaps just two guys out to catch a few rays, sit side by side tilted back as if in beach chairs, their white bellies exposed, knees apart, feet splayed to catch every last drop of the Madagascar sun. All they need are cigars to complete the picture. There’s a […]

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In defense of animal mind

June 24, 2011

We have been following Jonathan Balcombe‘s compassionate journey into the soul of the animal kingdom with deep interest. His efforts to reveal the emotional depth of the lives of animals deepen our connection to all of life, and enhance our ability to experience the shared delight of being. Today, he shares with us a recent […]

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more animal fun

June 20, 2011

As you unavoidably concluded from my post about Jonathan Balcombe’s beautiful, and moving Exultant Ark, I believe his exploration of animal emotions to be of great value to anyone who loves life. Balcombe’s ideas have recently received another public revival in a recent interview he did with Wired magazine, appearing in their article: How to Have […]

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A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure

May 26, 2011

It’s an oddly odd notion – the idea of animal pleasure. Odd, because we think it’s odd to think of animals experiencing anything as human-like as actual pleasure. Oddly odd, because it’s so obvious that pleasure is central to the well-being of just about any animal you can think of. So here we have Jonathan […]

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Animal pleasures

August 17, 2010

I have been following the work of Dr. Balcombe for some time – see http://www.deepfun.com/fun/2006/09/do-animals-have-fun-are-you-kidding/ – In this article, he acknowledges the obvious, but oddly overlooked idea that animals are actually capable of experiencing pleasure, of enjoying life. Near the end of the article he begins to discuss some of the implications of that insight. […]

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Articles

June 15, 2010

Self The Clue is in your Funprint – Martha Beck helps you find fun Playing with the Multiple Intelligences – How Play helps Them Grow – Bill Eberle Not Savage Beasts, but Valiant Pleasure Seekers – Jonathan Balcombe Play & Humor a collection of readings of interest to any Funiatrist, adapted from IN CONTEXT #13, Spring 1986 […]

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Do Animals Have Fun? Are you kidding?

September 15, 2006

Because of the email conversation that led to yesterday’s post, we have been given permission to publish the following excerpt from Chapter 4 of Pleasurable Kingdom by Dr. Jonathan Balcombe, himself, as today’s post. We do the Dance of Glee. Here, for you, special, the answer to the question – “Do animals have fun:” Though […]

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