Cognitive Research Findings May Help Explain Social Brinkmanship

March 20 2009 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future
Category: Science   Year: 2009   Rating: 2

New cognitive research may help explain why human social systems prefer to push the envelope, creating critical "perfect storm" situations, instead of settling into equilibrium.


If the global social brain is really just a scaled-up version of the individual brain, which in turn can also be viewed as an accelerator of existing bio-computional processes, then we should expect to uncover increasingly more parallels between individual and social cognition.  One such candidate is the phenomenon called Self-Organized Criticality, a form of inherent "brinkmanship" routinely found in advancing systems, particularly as they approach phase transitions.

Here's the more robust Wikipedia definition and links:

In physics, self-organized criticality (SOC) is a property of (classes of) dynamical systemscritical point as an attractor. Their macroscopic behaviour thus displays the spatial and/or temporal scale-invariance characteristic of the critical point of a phase transition, but without the neecliff_dont_walk.jpgd to tune control parameters to precise values.

The phenomenon was first identified by Katz in a seminal paper published in 1986 in Journal of Geophysical Research, building on earlier work by Knopoff, and later popularized by Per Bak, Chao Tang and Kurt Wiesenfeld ("BTW") in a paper published in 1987 in Physical Review Letters, and is considered to be one of the mechanisms by which complexity arises in nature. Its concepts have been enthusiastically applied across fields as diverse as geophysics, physical cosmology, evolutionary biology and ecology, economics, quantum gravity, sociology, solar physics, plasma physics, neurobiology and others.

A new U.K. study confirms that human brains do in fact rely on self-organized criticality for behaviors that may range from perception to action, reports World Science:

The re­search­ers used brain im­ag­ing tech­niques to meas­ure dy­nam­ic changes in the syn­chron­iz­a­tion of ac­ti­vity be­tween dif­fer­ent re­gions of the func­tion­al net­work in the hu­man brain. They al­so in­ves­t­i­gated the syn­chron­iz­a­tion of ac­ti­vity in com­puta­t­ional mod­els, and found that the “dy­nam­ic pro­file” they had iden­ti­fied in the brain was ex­actly re­flected in the mod­els.

Com­puta­t­ional net­works show­ing these char­ac­ter­is­tics have al­so been shown to have the best mem­o­ry and in­forma­t­ion-processing ca­pacity, re­search­ers say: crit­i­cal sys­tems can re­spond quickly and ex­ten­sively to small changes in their in­puts.

“Due to these char­ac­ter­is­tics, self-or­gan­ized crit­i­cal­ity is in­tu­i­tively at­trac­tive as a mod­el for brain func­tions such as per­cep­tion and ac­tion, be­cause it would al­low us to switch quickly be­tween men­tal states in or­der to re­spond to chang­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions,” said co-author Man­fred Kitzbich­ler of Cam­bridge.

The new findings clear a path for new research on computational scale-invariance that may soon change how we think about human social systems and economics (another reason to pay attention to the ground-breaking work flowing from nodes such as the Evo Devo Universe community) and help us understand why we, en mass, push our environment to its limits - something that thinkers like John Beddington, Britain's chief national scientist, believe may soon "create war, unrest and mass migration"

If indeed self-organized criticality is key to maintaining an optimal rate of knowledge growth / complexity expansion, then we can use that knowledge to develop better models of our behavior and systemic future.  It may be critical to mitigating the mass species deaths that typically occur during epochal transitions - iow, help save us from oursleves.

(Images courtesy of Sara Atkins and John Trainor.)

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