Isabel Behncke: What Can Bonobos Teach Us About Play? Primatologist Isabel Behncke Izquierdo explains how bonobos learn by constantly playing. She says play isn't frivolous; it appears to be a critical way to solve problems and avoid conflict.
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What Can Bonobos Teach Us About Play?

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What Can Bonobos Teach Us About Play?

What Can Bonobos Teach Us About Play?

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So while it might be hard for some adults to value a certain kind of unstructured play, that might depend on your species.

ISABEL BEHNCKE: My name is Isabel Behncke.

RAZ: Isabel's a primatologist.

BEHNCKE: That means that I study the social behavior of primates.

RAZ: And early in her career, during a research study...

BEHNCKE: In a zoo in England, when I was comparing the behavior of chimpanzees and bonobos...

RAZ: Isabel started to notice something with the bonobos in particular.

BEHNCKE: Part from this incredible tolerant nature that bonobos have, they seem to play a lot.

RAZ: Lots of chasing, laughing and so on for hours. And it wasn't just the kid bonobos that played; it was the adults as well.

BEHNCKE: And that is really unusual.

RAZ: It's unusual because while almost every kid mammal plays, when they grow up...

BEHNCKE: They stop playing.

RAZ: At least most species, including humans. But in just a handful...

BEHNCKE: You get this apparently weird phenomena that the adults play.

RAZ: I mean, so are bonobos, like, outliers?

BEHNCKE: Yes, bonobos are outliers. So many other adult primates play - chimpanzees for instance - but they are outliers in the extent of the play, how much they play. You know, if I show you the network of play, it's amazing because basically everyone plays with almost everyone. And that's very, very unusual.

RAZ: So Isabel thought perhaps play, at least for bonobos, wasn't frivolous.

BEHNCKE: That's why I realized, gosh, maybe there's something about the complexity of play, particularly adult play that is related to intelligence, to basically creativity, to trust.

RAZ: In other words, maybe play is essential for their survival. But to find out, Isabel needed to get out of the zoo. And so she thought...

BEHNCKE: Let's try and find adult play in the wild.

RAZ: So off she went to the jungles of Congo to study one particular family of bonobos.

BEHNCKE: This is a group called the kamikake (ph) group. There's around 30 bonobos.

RAZ: How do you study them? Like, do you, like, film them? Or do you just sort of hang out behind bushes and just kind of watch them quietly?

BEHNCKE: I would love that it's just the hanging out behind bushes, but it's rather following them through the jungle wherever they go because it's studying a wild community. So that means that I have walked around 3,000 kilometers in learning their behavior.

RAZ: Can you describe what you were seeing? What were they doing? How were they playing?

BEHNCKE: So first of all, they chase; they bite; they tickle; many times they laugh.


RAZ: A bonobo laugh, it turns out, sounds like this.


BEHNCKE: There's other types of play where it's also this relationship between risk-taking, trust and ambiguity. For instance, imagine an adult sitting on a high branch, OK? Then a smaller individual comes, say a juvenile, and the adult grabs the arm of the juvenile and then balances him from the branch, right? So he could let him go and he doesn't. But obviously he trusts him.

RAZ: And by the time Isabel left Congo, she realized that for bonobos, play is a kind of social glue.

BEHNCKE: The group is actually connected through play, through this sense of joy of positive emotion that spreads and creates more positive emotion and trust in turn.

RAZ: When you observed this, did you start to think, I wonder how this relates to us, to humans, and in our relationship with play?

BEHNCKE: Yes. We share a common root for play. Our reward system in our brains, it's over-developed so obviously we have a capacity for positive emotion and joy that has been an important drive in our evolution. You see live expressions of these roots in normal human behavior, anything from expression in fashion to competitive sports to literature. Of course, that's where you suspend your belief and you go into these fictional worlds quite happily because that's what play does. It suspends reality. Things that don't usually happen can happen. So we train our brain to explore all these different worlds safely.

RAZ: Here's Isabel's TED Talk.


BEHNCKE: Bonobos, like humans, love to play throughout their entire lives. Play is not just child's games. For us and them, play's foundational for building relationships and fostering tolerance. It's where we learn to trust and where we learn about the rules of the game. Play increases creativity and resilience, and it's all about the generation of diversity - diversity of interactions, diversity of behaviors, diversity of connections. And when you watch bonobo play, you're seeing the very evolutionary roots of human laughter, dance and ritual. But they also hold a secret for our future, a future where we need to adapt to an increasingly challenging world through greater creativity and greater cooperation. The secret is that play is the key to these capacities. In other words, play is our adaptive wildcard. In order to adapt successfully to a changing world, we need to play. But will we make the most of our playfulness? Play is not frivolous. For bonobos and humans alike, life is not just read in tooth and claw. In times when it seems least appropriate to play, it might be the times when it's most urgent.

RAZ: So if play is so important, then how much play do we need - do humans need? We'll hear more from Isabel Behncke and her ideas about play in just a moment. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about play, and also about how some of our closest relatives play.


BEHNCKE: In particular, bonobos. They are great apes.

RAZ: We've been talking with primatologist Isabel Behnckee who spent a lot of time in the Congolese jungle studying bonobos where she got the idea that play for humans, like bonobos, isn't just for fun.

BEHNCKE: Think of human festivals, OK? Humans have had festivals since ancient times. We know hunter-gatherers had festivals. These things that humans have always done, not necessarily frequent, are crucial to bonding groups, to extending networks, to creating trust, to developing creativity and also, just the sheer joy. I think it's a very important element of our existential life.


BEHNCKE: And in fact, one of my current projects, it's exactly that. I'm observing adult play of humans in what I call adult play in the wild. For instance, one of the field sites is Burning Man.


RAZ: OK, you've probably heard of Burning Man. It takes place in the deserts of northern Nevada every year - think art festival crossed with a dance-and-costume party in a giant utopian village. It's like a free-for-all of self-expression.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh, hey there. It's you. I'm so glad you made it.

RAZ: This, by the way, is from a documentary on Burning Man.

BEHNCKE: It's a weeklong of different expressions of play...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Let's go. Come on. Let's go do some Burning Man right now.

BEHNCKE: ...Which obviously in humans, takes different forms. You know, bonobos don't necessarily go around in costume. But their oldest common traits...


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I want to do it again.

BEHNCKE: ...Joy...



BEHNCKE: ...Laughter...



BEHNCKE: ...And you will see that people immediately connect to each other, laugh, are willing to make fun of themselves, engage with people that they didn't know before. It is amazing.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Tell me about your experience. How was it sliding down the slide?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's a lot scarier than it looks, but it's so much fun.

BEHNCKE: People taking risks - play loves risk, and play loves ambiguity and uncertainty in a way that - you know, in other situations, we hate uncertainty.


RAZ: So wait, you go to Burning Man with, like, a notepad and a lab coat, and you just, like, walk around?

BEHNCKE: So I ditched the lab coat a long time ago. But yes, this is the idea exactly, to look at play in the wild, both in humans and nonhumans, and that's how you get to kind of common principles.

RAZ: OK, so a lot of people think of Burning Man as, like, a bunch of flaky people, like, dancing around, you know, crazy in, like, the deserts of Nevada, but I have met people, like, several people, who have told me, oh, yeah, I mean, Burning Man has changed my life. And hearing you talk about it as this example of human adults in a habitat - natural habitat playing or being uninhibited enough to play, it seems to all make sense.

BEHNCKE: Yes. Generally speaking, I think obviously adult play is a route for personal transformation, and festivals like Burning Man allow for that to happen. And I see enduring friendships being formed. I see people exploring and pushing their limits that they perhaps wouldn't have dared to do before, that then they take that back to their lives and go, yes, I can feel different. I can explore and express myself in these different ways. Just the sheer effect of experiencing joy, I think, also liberates and changes people at the core.


BEHNCKE: To explore the world is fun, and there's something very important in our consciousness that lights up the world, that makes us feel alive about play.

RAZ: Primatologist Isabel Behncke - check out her full talk at

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