Play as a Cognitive Primitive

Mike Travers

What do I mean by Cognitive Primitive?

  • Basic to the operation of the mind
  • Appears early in evolution
  • Used as a component of more complex phenomena

Refactoring the Mind



Problems with Cognitivism

  • Planning is NP-hard
  • Sensation and action are decoupled
  • Doesn՚t seem very biological
  • Just as Cartesian as what it purports to replace
  • Creates philosophical problems (qualia, symbol grounding)

Forms of Postcognitivism

  • Embodied Cognition
  • Heideggerian AI
  • Animal Behavior
  • Emotion
  • Narrative
  • Play

Play as a cognitive primitive

  • Play is found in animals
  • It՚s been a puzzle to explain in evolutionary terms
  • Plesiomorphic trait (ancient and universal)

“No behavioral concept has proven more ill-defined, elusive, controversial, and even unfashionaable.”
—E. O. Wilson (1975)

for example

Bateson՚s theory of animal play

  • Play involves a kind of framing or quoting of normal behavior
  • Signals on two levels
  • Level 1: “I՚m fighting!”
  • Metacommunication: “But not really!”

“it is evident that a very important stage in this evolution [of play signalling] occurs when the organism gradually ceases to respond quite automatically … and becomes able to recognize the sign as a signal: that is, to recognize that the other individual's and its own signals are only signals, which can be trusted, distrusted, falsified, denied, amplified, corrected, and so forth.”

The machinery of action

  • Very simple organisms (bacteria, insects) rely on reflex: direct triggering of actions from stimuli
  • Humans have complex representations, reflection, planning
  • What evolutionary pathway could connect these?

The machinery of play

  • the ability to put “not really” scare quotes around a mental state
  • seems equally useful for basic intelligent action!
  • lookahead rather than planning.
  • That is, to choose a course of action,
  • in a manner that isn՚t merely reacting to current stimuli
  • You need to envision the future consequences

In both play and proto-planning, your mental machinery has to somehow recreate mental states corresponding to situations that are not actually present, and similarly feign mock versions of the actions that would normally respond to them.

Play as a cultural primitive

Huizinga, Homo Ludens

  • Play is an essential constituent of culture

“civilization arises and unfolds in and as play. ”

“Now in myth and ritual the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin: law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom, and science. All are rooted in the primaeval soil of play.”


  • The symbolic computation view of mind is kind of broken
  • Play is this weird, interesting, universal phenomenon.
  • There՚s a possible similarity between the machinery of play and the machinery of intelligent action.
  • Interested in applying this idea to the design of computational systems.