JOY Full Horses: Part 1 Chapter 3: What Neuroscience Teaches Us About Play

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The Archeological Dig Through The Brain
So far I’ve discussed:

SEEKING.  This is the “granddaddy” of all the systems. You have to find the resources needed for survival. This is why so many people love to shop.  The SEEKER circuit is being activated even if you are just window shopping. This system is also activated in conjunction with the other emotional systems so it is too simplistic to say the SEEKER circuit alone was activated.

RAGE: Someone wants to take your resources so you have RAGE.

FEAR: Other organisms want to eat you, so there’s FEAR.

LUST: You need to reproduce.  This leads to the evolution of the next system: CARE.

CARE: You need to care for offspring.

PANIC: The loss of your caregiver and protector triggers this system.

This leaves just one more system to talk about and that’s PLAY.  After I first heard Panksepp speak, I was trying to remember the seven systems so I could share his work with others.  I got six of them without any trouble.  What was the seventh?  I had a hard time remembering PLAY.  Somehow PLAY just seemed too frivolous and inconsequential to belong on this list, but then I started learning more about play and the key role it “plays” in brain development.

So here is the last of the seven systems:

PLAY: Animals need social engagement which is manifested in play. PLAY is the last system Panksepp lists, and he gives it special significance. It is through play that the neocortex becomes integrated.

Clicker Training and the Seven Affective Systems
For a clicker trainer, this list of the seven Affective Systems is of particular interest.  Consider what it means to use a marker signal and to pair it with things an animal wants.  The click becomes my “yes answer” signal.  For the horse it’s a predictor of good things.  My horse wants to get me to click so he can engage in activities he enjoys.  That means he’s going to be more likely to perform whatever behavior was occurring just as I clicked.  It’s a wonderfully reinforcing loop.  We’re both happy.  I’m getting more of the behavior I like, and my horse thinks he’s got me all figured out!  He knows how to make that magic click happen.

Clicker training is a fun, effective, horse-friendly way to train.  When I look at Panksepp’s list, I understand even more clearly why my horses and I enjoy it so very much.  Clicker training activates both the SEEKER and the PLAY systems.  I’m not relying on FEAR to move a horse out of my space.  In fact I actively work to avoid triggering FEAR, RAGE, or PANIC.

As a clicker trainer, I’ve learned how to trigger the SEEKER circuit and to turn training into play for both myself and my horses.  At any point where the training begins to feel like a chore, it’s time to rethink what I’m doing.  I want to come up with training solutions that don’t just manage my horse’s fear and anxiety.  I want to turn the trailer, the farrier, the scary end of the arena into a source of play and social engagement for my horse.  I want him actively seeking out opportunities to engage with me and the environment.

Part 1: Chapter 4:  Inside the Trainer’s Brain

The Neuroscience of Training
When I think about Panksepp’s list, I wonder what happens in the brain when different training methods are used. Two trainers could be working towards the same end goal behavior. On the outside you’d see the behavior emerging. But inside the brain – what is happening?

Clicker trainers talk about their horses being different. Panksepp’s work seems to support this. When we use clicker training, we’re very much activating the SEEKER circuit. We’re engaging our animals in PLAY, and we’re avoiding FEAR and PANIC.

You can train a horse with a whip and spurs followed by a pet on the neck.  Alternatively, you can take the threat away and train with a clicker and treats.  Panksepp’s work would suggest that very different systems are activated within the brain. And so, yes, when we say our clicker-trained horses are different – at the basic level of brain mechanisms, it turns out that they truly are.  So, if play is critical for integrating the neocortex, what is this saying about our animals? And what is the effect on us as we participate in the process? Anyone who clicker trains can easily answer that last question.

Coming next: Part 1: Chapter 4:  Recognizing PLAY

I hope you will want to share these articles by sending links to this blog to your friends.  But please remember this is copyrighted material.  All rights are reserved. Please do not copy any of the “Joyful Horses” articles without first getting written permission from Alexandra  Kurland, via theclickercenter.com

Also note: these articles are not intended as an instruction guide for introducing your horse to clicker training.  If you are new to clicker training and you are looking for how-to instructions, you will find what you need at my web sites:

theclickercenter.com                    theclickercentercourse.com

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