Synchronization: A Fundamental Force of Nature

European audiences clap in unison. There is no central conductor directing the tempo, so how does this happen? Birds swarm almost as if they were aspects of a group mind [1].



There are about ten thousand pacemaker cells in the heart. Yet they must all fire in unison so that the heart pumps regularly. With no control cell observed, how does this happen? Even more vividly, in southern Thailand thousands of fireflies blink in unison [2].



What to these phenomena have in common? They are individuals with limited information that collectively produce amazing synchronization, even though there is no directing maestro. This points to a fundamental, mathematical drive towards order and synchronization. Ian Kuzan has created a computer model of swarm behavior with three simple rules:


1) All individuals can see only their neighbors
2) The individuals try to line up with their neighbors
3) The individuals are attracted to each other, but keep a minimum distance apart


The result looks just like a swarm of birds or fish [3]:



This sort of synchronization is observed in nonliving objects too, such as pendulums hanging from the same beam, the atoms in a Bose-Einstein condensate, and the electrons in a superconductor. In fact, many condensed matter physicists are studying collective phenomena in biological systems because they are so similar.


All this makes it clear that a distributed, decentralized network can create collective phenomena without specialized control centers. This is extremely suggestive of brain networks, as we discuss in a previous post “Where is Memory: The Brain-Wide Network” [4]. In fact, too much synchronization can be a problem. Synchronized firing of neurons is thought to cause epilepsy.


If you want to learn more I recommend the excellent book Sync by Steven Strogatz.


1. “alain delorme captures the balletic murmurations of wild birds”
2. “Synchronous Fireflies” by GreatSmokyMountains
3. Ted Talk titled “How things in nature tend to sync up ” by Steven Strogatz
4. “Where is Memory: The Brain-Wide Network” on mindscaperblog

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