«[OCR by Konrad Lorenz Haus Altenberg – Seitenumbrüche und -zahlen wie im Original. K. Lorenz 1956 Plays and Vacuum Activities 633 ...»
Konrad Lorenz 1956
Plays and Vacuum Activities
In: Fondation Singer-Polignac (ed.) L'instinct dans le comportement des animaux et
de l'homme. (Colloque organisé par la Fondation Singer-Polignac) Paris: Masson.
[OCR by Konrad Lorenz Haus Altenberg – http://klha.at]
Seitenumbrüche und -zahlen wie im Original.
K. Lorenz 1956 Plays and Vacuum Activities 633
Plays and Vacuum Activities
When Monsieur le Professeur GRASSÉ invited me to talk about the relations between play and vacuum activity I said in my answering letter that I did not know enough about the subject to justify a lecture. In turn he answered that I should say as much as I know. So, this presentation will be very short and will not propose to do more than give a few hints which might lead to a fruitful discussion. Do not ask me to give a definition of play. There is a good excuse for naively using a word of common parlance even if one cannot give an exact definition of the concept corresponding to it: very usually there is a real natural unit corresponding to a concept for which the natural growth of common language has developed a word. So let us use the word «play» just as every man in the street would use it naively when talking of the play of kittens or even little children. Whenever we observed higher mammals at play, puppies «playing at» fighting each other, kittens «stalking a ball of wool» or kids gamboling on the grass there is no doubt about the playful motive of these activities although the motor patterns observed are actually very similar to certain instinctive movements which may be used in deadly contest. Still, they differ in sufficiently many characters to be clearly distinct from what we call vacuum activities. These differences, however, become smaller and smaller as you go down to lower Mammals and inframammalian Vertebrates. A little Rabbit, being released from close confinement, is apt to gambol, much like a Colt, and like it also shows motor patterns really pertaining to escape reactions. But, unlike the Colt, the little rabbit tends to get into real panic, and, after a while zigzagging, takes cover and crouches, quite as if it were seriously afraid.
And this is exactly what does not happen in higher Mammals. The usual opposition between play and being serious has a very real background, although the coordination of movements which we can observe in play is obviously identical with those of true instinctive motor patterns which, in their serious K. Lorenz 1956 Plays and Vacuum Activities 634 application, perform a function of very definite survival value. The Colt's play shows a number of movements the serious function of which is to throw off a Lion or Tiger that has jumped on a horses back: the sudden jump with all four legs combined with an arching of the back and all other manoeuvres of bucking familiar through the Wild West Show. The «Capriole», intentionally developed by the Spanish Riding School, corresponds to an instinctive movement of analogous function. In spite of showing movements belonging to very desperate measures of escape the little Colt evidently is not afraid, which it very clearly proves by the fact that it can very suddenly cease from performing these movements in order to begin to graze or to relapse into quiescence. This behaviour is very different from what you might observe in a Horse that gets panicky in a real vacuum or explosion activity, in which case even after the quietening down the animal will be for a considerable time extremely sensibilized to all stimulations which elicite escape and also will show very noticeable phaenomena on the side of the vegetative nervous system. Objectively speaking, the single movements of escape are dissociated from what ethologists call the general mood, that is to say the readiness to perform any kind of escape activities.
This mood can be roughly qualified by ascertaining the threshold of stimulation necessary to release instinctive movements. In the case of vacuum activities this threshold is lowered to the extreme so that negligible stimuli, unnoticeable to the human observer, are enough to bring about a highly intensive response. The question whether there is a considerable threshold-lowering or not is, as far as I can see, the only objective means of distinguishing between «play» and vacuum activities. If you play with a Dog or Cat which performs all kind of fighting movements in play and start to handle it rather roughly you will find that the animals threshold of getting angry is certainly not only not lowered, but, if anything, heightened by its playful fighting activity. With less highly developed Carnivora this is not the case. Badgers, for instance, are apt to get seriously angry while playing if you handle them too roughly and a playful fighting merges imperceptibly into a real one.
If we apply the term «play» to all instinctive movements which are performed independently of the proper releasing object and also without any threshold-lowering, we must attribute the ability to play not only to Mammals, but also to Birds. Anatidae perform, during their daily bath, all the motor patterns serving to escape from a flying enemy, like, for instance, a Sea-eagle. Yet, the birds are definitely not in a panic and the escape play ceases as suddenly as it does in the higher Mammals. It would seem, after what has been said, that the instinctive movements performed in play are not activated along the usual paths and not by the source of their common autochthonous motivation. To explain what I mean I should like, at this point, to mention a result of W. R. HESS: in the experiment in which he stimulated certain localities in the hypothalamus of the Cat, he found, amongst other similar «centres», the locality whose stimulation elicited fighting activity in the Cat. By stimulating this point he got the Cat into a real rage, or, objectively speaking, into a high K. Lorenz 1956 Plays and Vacuum Activities 635 readiness to fight. With weak stimulation, the Cat showed a threshold-lowering of fighting, showed true appetitive behaviour in «looking for trouble» that is to say searching for a substitute object. This it usually found in the person of the assistant of Professor HESS. With stronger stimulation the threshold would show further lowering, resulting at last in an explosive fighting activity performed with any object, and, in this regard, very similar to an explosion or vacuum activity. If the point of stimulation was shifted a few millimeters in the caudal direction its result was not a generalized readiness to fight. The fighting threshold remained unaltered, it was still possible to elicite other responses like eating, purring etc.
Only with higher intensity of stimulation there appeared, quite suddenly, dissociated motor patterns of fighting like spitting or a blow of the paw with extruded claws.
It is very tempting to interpret this result in the terms of TINBERGEN'S theory of the hierarchical organisation of instinct. The first, more cranial locality stimulated a centre on a more highly integrated level of this hierarchy, the second one the lower centre of a single motor pattern. It seems to be characteristic of «play» that instinctive movements are thus performed independently of the higher patterns into which they are integrated when functioning «in serious». A very good example of this is the play of a little kitten. It will suddenly crouch, lift the hind legs alternately and make a very interesting aiming movement with its head, all of which is photographically identical with what the adult Cat does in stalking a Mouse. The kitten, however, thus, «stalks» one of its siblings, rushes at it, clasps it with both front paws and performs rhythmical thrusts at the other with the hind legs. This, again, is a movement performed in a serious fight between adult Cats. Alternately the kitten, jumping at the other, may suddenly stop, stand broadside to its opponent, hunch its back and ruffle the hair of its tail, in other words, assume an attitude characteristic of the serious defense against a dangerous predator. It is only in play that these movements can follow each other in such quick succession. The autochtonous readinesses for hunting, rival fighting and defense against predators are mutually exclusive or at least inhibitive.
The source of excitation feeding play activities must be different from the autochtonous one. In this point play may be more akin to displacement activities than to vacuum activities. The unspecific source feeding, in play, single motor patterns belonging to quite different instincts is apparently flowing very richly in some cases. For instance, the real stalking and rushing at prey seems to be very exhausting in many Carnivora, yet in play it can be repeated almost indefinitely.
Thus, activities which, when performing their serious function, bear the character of consummatory acts, do not so when performed in play. This, though expressed in physiological terms, obviously describes the same set of facts which Professor BALLY means when he says that play is an activity in a field devoid of tension, («im entspannten Feld») and, at the same time, belonging to the appetitive sector of instinctive behaviour.
K. Lorenz 1956 Plays and Vacuum Activities 636 Very many years ago KARL GROOS has drawn attention to the fact that play itself may develop a very definite survival value to the species, because the young animal practises in play its instinctive movements and learns important things about their application. There is, obviously, much truth in this statement which, incidentally, makes intelligible why play is more important in young animals than in old ones. However, we do not believe that instinctive motor patterns need practising or are susceptible to improvement through practice.
This is also borne out by the fact that play is most prominent in species which combine a minimum of equipement of instinctive movements with a maximum of exploratory learning.
Let me illustrate the exploratory side of play by describing the behaviour of a young Raven.
The Raven is, on its level, the very prototype of what we call a «curiosity creature». The instinctive motor patterns which it commands are comparatively few and very highly specialised. But this very lack of specialisation ensures a very broad applicability of these instinctive movements while, of course, highly specialised ones, just like highly specialised tools, can only be applied in one particular situation. To the wide applicability of these movements corresponds a wideness of innate releasing mechanisms. Indeed, these responses show such an extreme lack of selectivity that one is tempted to say they have no innate releasing mechanism at all, that they will go off in practically any stimulus situation until the animal has learned, through conditioning, where to perform them. A young Raven, confronted with a new object, (which may be a camera, an old bottle, a stuffed polecat or anything else) first reacts with escape responses. He will fly up to an elevated perch and, from this point of vantage, stare at the object literally for hours. After this he will begin to approach the object very gradually, maintaining all the while a maximum of caution and the expressive attitude of intense fear. He will cover the last distance from the object hopping sideways, with half-raised wings, in the utmost readiness to flee. At last, he will deliver a single fearful blow with his powerful beak at the object and forthwith fly back to his safe perch. If nothing happens he will repeat the same procedure in much quicker sequence and with more confidence. If the object is an animal that flees the Raven loses all fear in the fraction of a second and will start in pursuit instantly. If it is an animal that charges he will either try to get behind it and tease it by trying to repeat the attack or, if the charge is sufficiently impressive, looses interest in a very short time. With an unanimate object the Raven will proceed to apply a number of further instinctive movements. He will grab it with one foot, peck at it, try to tear off pieces, insert his bill in any existing cleft and then pry apart his mandibles with considerable force.
Finally, if the object is not too big, the Raven will carry it away, push it into a convenient hole and cover it with some inconspicuous material. I would like to draw attention to the fact that this young bird performed nothing but a series of innate instinctive movements which, in the adult bird, serve definite purposes. They certainly look as if they all belonged to one chain of
appetitive behaviour aiming at eating. It is easy, however, to show that this is not the case: