Fuselier: Rough And Tumble Play

Los Alamos

Note: This is the first of a two-part series on the emotional system that influences our lighter side. It’s fun but, if we’re not careful, can also cause us some trouble.

Many mammals demonstrate behaviors known as rough and tumble (RAT) play. The behaviors and the stimuli that evoke the behaviors are so similar that it’s clear that we and other species share the same innate neural networks that control them. For clarity, I’ll refer to the neural network from which RAT play originates as the RAT Play emotional system.

Young rats will respond in apparent joy with a laughter-type noise when they are tickled on the ribs in a way extremely similar to the way our children respond to the same stimulus. They also wrestle, as do our puppies and kittens, in ways that are almost identical to human wrestling, including takedowns and pinning.

The RAT emotional system has evolved to help young animals develop physically and to allow them to experience real-life emotional situations in a safe environment. For humans, the latter benefit relies heavily on us as adult caregivers being involved, or at least close enough to supervise, whenever children are engaged in RAT play.

We engage in different levels and types of RAT play at different ages. As adults, we modify our play to match the age of the children with whom we’re playing. We’ll tickle infants and toddlers, play “monsters” with 4 to 6 year olds, rough horse with 7 to 10 year olds, and joke around with pre-adolescents and, if we’re lucky, teenagers.

Adult-adult RAT play is rarely physical, although competitive sports may have something to do with this emotional system. Yet, RAT play in adults retains a purpose that is similar to RAT play in children: it helps adults deal with difficult emotional settings.

Our most difficult emotional experience, the sense of abandonment and separation, is controlled by what Jaak Panksepp calls the Panic emotional system. The RAT play emotional system is designed to help ease social tensions that come with the Panic system’s activation. We’ll join others in enjoying a good laugh at the expense of someone else, especially if the person is someone we view as having a high social standing. Think of court jesters of the past who could poke fun at royalty without losing their heads. Comedians and late night show hosts serve similar roles for us today.

The goal of all comedians is to activate the RAT play emotional systems of as many people as possible without activating too many Panic emotional systems.  To do so, they like to find someone all the audience can scapegoat in common. The material of many comic routines involves “poking” fun at people with high status, especially the politicians who we elect. We enjoy pretending to see them fall from status with the same joy as watching someone fall on a banana peel in the middle of a crowd.

The RAT play emotional system appears closely connected to the Social emotional system, which is the emotion through which we bond with others and is our counterweight for Panic system. In primates, isolation from others dampens the desire to paly even after the young monkeys are reunited with others. According to Panksepp, young primates need to sense support and social warmth before they will engage again in RAT play.

Humans are no different. We need to have the Social emotional system activated to enjoy RAT play and comedy. When we feel secure within a group, we can play and joke around with each other. When we don’t, we can easily become wallflowers.

The connection between the RAT play and Social emotional systems is often seen when individuals are introduced. A valuable use of the RAT play emotional system in adults is when we engage the system to lighten a difficult social situation. Jokes and laughter are great tools to help people feel connected in social settings that may otherwise be awkward. The RAT play emotional system is a great icebreaker.

But our comedic emotional system has its downside. We can take it too far and end up victimizing the poor person at the center of the joke. And, we can find ourselves being the victim as well. When either happens, the beneficial effects of the RAT play emotional system are quickly lost.

Next week: More RAT play time.