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Wednesday, April 7, 2010


What do you see?

People have discovered in a number of locations around the world such as Thailand and Tennessee where groups of fireflies independently flashing will emergently synchronize their flashes. This is one video of this emergent phenomena.

So is the whole simply the sum of the parts? Is the whole something more? Or is it both?


Thai said...

For comments

Dr John said...

Well one interpretation Thai is this is a form of communication between them. Perhaps it has some other meaning like geese flapping their wings in synchrony in what would appear to be a more aerodynamic form as a group not that is what is going on here.Crowds tend to synchronize their clapping. Perhaps somehow this gives the illusion they are greater than the sum of the individual parts and it wards off predators. Do you believe it has a deeper meaning?

Thai said...

Deeper as in mystical? No

... Unless you get into one of Deb's "it depends on what the meaning of is is" discussion ;-)

As I have said before, I'm thoroughly of the erector set mindset.

If it helps, as I have said before. I think our only way out of this collective mess/bubble/etc... whatever you want to call it is through cooperation, and this does seem to require

My belief as to what consciousness is came out of an inquiry into what I thought everything else is and the nature of "condensates" or hubs in networks, etc...

My point is that something greater than the sum of the parts can emerge as a property of the parts themselves (e.g. a cloud of swarming synchronized fireflies appearing as a collective flashing mist at a distance) even though there is absolutely no intelligence as we tend to think of the term intelligence within the individual member of the swarm required to bring this to pass.

As for a form of communication: absolutely yes

But the funny thing about this communication is it becomes one those odd forms of communication where the only intelligence required to create a swarm rests within the fireflies in the form visual cues from their adjacent neighbor.

No knowledge of what is happening at a distance in the swarm is required for this collective property to emerge.

Information on a distant swarm member's flashing is in effect already contained within the information an adjacent firefly passes to its neighbor (I guess you could think of this as analogous to nested analogy sound or light waves all in a single signal). The individual firefly only has to pay attention to one or a few of its neighbors and the sync effect will still emerge.

But try putting a firefly into a lab and looking for independent communication between two fireflies at a distance in a single swarm and you will not find it.

The swarm phenomena we are witnessing is a condensation of collective behaviors- it become a kind of "hub".

And to really get off topic, think about how other animals in the ecosystem (say birds) might notice the swarm yet ignore the individual fireflies. Further, they might even begin to sync certain of their own behaviors to this synch phenomena (say use the cloud of synchronized lights as a flying light become, etc...) seeing its consistency but not recognizing they have synchronized their own behavior to what is really a rather unstable phenomena.

If the phenomena goes away...

Debra said...

What's the difference between the synchronicity in the fireflies behavior and.. in the school of fish ?
The same thing appears to be happening to permit the INDIVIDUALS in a school of fish to move in a way that keeps them at a more or less constant distance from their neighbors.
True or not ?
And the observation that women who live in the same household seem to adjust their periods so that they occur at the same time ?
This last phenomenon is not linked to our volition. Whatsoever.
As always, I read these articles for the META discourse as much as I do for the content.
What emerges, but is somewhat obscured in the article is the question of rhythm. Delicate question.
You can see the rhythm in a visual design. But you are NOT hearing it, are you ?
And you HEAR it when there are sounds.
Rhythm means periodicity.
I DON'T like the author's... PREJUDICES about mysticism. They are.. INHERITED prejudices.
Look how... sceptical he and his colleagues were about.. BELIEVING that the fireflies were emitting synchronous "signals" in the first place.
Not... particularly open minded in a "scientific" researcher, in my book.
The more prejudices you have, the LESS you are going to be good at research. The LESS you are going to be able to SEE WELL. Logical.
What I really like is that way that we are changing the way we observe the animal world.
Becoming MORE observant of complexity.
This is encouraging to me.
But we are still very hung up in the past, outdated constructs about "objectivity". And this is hampering our observation. Too bad.

Thai said...

here is no difference, that is my point.

AND the reason I'm skeptical that fireflies are emitting synchronized signals is this was heavily studied and answered- I can give you links but I know you'll never read them.

At first the researches thought they were synchronized, but they quickly learned they are not. It took them forever to figure out how they could do it when they weren't.

What they have come to learn is the phenomenal is not only common, it is universal (as far as they can tell) ;-)

Thai said...

Ahh! so many typos.I do hate writing in a 4"X 2" box, it is so hard to edit.

Debra said...

Mea culpa about the links, Thai.
I know that I read about a third of your links.
I jealously try to avoid spending my whole life on Internet, which I could do.
What do you mean, not synchronized ?
How can something be one thing, and NOT one thing at the same time ? You have me confused, now...
So.. WHAT, in your opinion, accounts for the fact that women in the same living space tend to move their cycles to become synchronous ??
Rhythm is a very important part of our lives.
Maybe... the MOON is behind it. Who knows ??

Thai said...

Deb, I'll let this one go. We are simply too far apart this time

Dink said...

"when the intelligence span is greater
than about 30 points, then the implication seems to be that there is a limit beyond which
genuine communications between different levels of intelligence become impossible.

Intriguing and disturbing. I've read that IQ is really a measurement of maturity vs. capacity. Maybe to reach the next hub of maturity a person has to have certain experiences. Once these experiences are realized, they unlock a hub and are able to access the next level of experiences. One could correlate Maslow's pyramid from psych 101 into this (I'm always trying to synthesize the data into the grand unified theory; forgive me if I overreach on occasion ;) ).

Anyhoo, it would explain why its absurd for the US to go into rural Afghanistan and try to impose democracy on people who haven't had the intermediate experiences to support the complex hub of elected rule.

The theory is also fairly egalitarian in that IQ seems finite while someone currently on a low hub could potential still have the experiences to advance them to the next hub.

And that firefly thing is beyond me. Positive feedback loop? I can't see the benefit so I assume its a defect? Weird!

Dr John said...

I am afraid I have zero hope Thai that cooperation in a synchronous manor between humans such as these bugs exhibit will ever occur on a grand scale. It may help explain consciousness but I do not believe it is how we humans have evolved to survive. While I am looking to my right to check for movements from my neighbor to synchronize myself, my neighbor on the left is likely getting ready to bash in my skull with a brick then steal my woman and lunch. The fly has no such worries.

Thai said...

Ah, this is where we may simultaneously agree and disagree depending on the issue of aspect or point of view of frame of reference we want to look at the issue from and whether we cooperate or not. ;-)

For as my old cardiology professor used to remind me over and over and over: "The eye does not see what the mind does not know."

Certainly I think we can agree that the following are wonderful examples of synchronization on a grand human scale.

Example 1

Example 2

Example 3

FWIW, Koyaanisqatsi is one of the best visual examples of sync I have ever seen, even as it makes a point re: (wo)man's relationship to the environment which Deb continues to beat. If you have not watched it, I highly recommend it.

Example 4

Etc... (I could go on forever)

PS- You have to admit the fractal imagery is pretty spectacular.

Thai said...

And in case I have given too many example of sync from an establishment or politically right leaning perspective, here is the same phenomena from a politically left perspective.

... Though I think Jon Haidt's comment "that the great conservative insight: that order is really hard to achieve, it's really precious, and its really easy to lose" is spot on. And I think it is why it is probably easier for me to find more examples of sync amongst conservatives and conservative institutions, etc... than amongst liberals. Similarly, I think the world of mental illness you live in, almost by definition, is a world of disorder/chaos/chaotic systems and it is why you see yourself as more a voice of the system than a voice of the patient in contradistinction to the very essence of what we are taught medicine is.

Sync is out there. You just need to look differently. At least I see it.

Be well

Thai said...

One of my twin sons was looking over my shoulder as I wrote the last comment and demanded I also share an example of where sync breaks down. ;-)

Dr John said...

Well those certainly are examples Thai in a limited sense. I love the "pseudo-kinship" that the armed forces are able to develop in people. Sadly we need an enemy often to do it.I think you will not find as a compelling example of synchronicity in humans who share no genetic material. I found Haidt the psychologist very difficult to watch. The condescension was palpable. I thought that was a wonderful example of the exact opposite of sync! I would have been one of the few libertarians in the audience and find myself nauseated by both groups and their intolerance and demands of each other. I agree with you in how you see my place in psychiatry and with pts. I have no doubt you are right and it is out there in slices of synchronicity if you look. I guess the glasses I have on now see mostly dyssynchronous behavior rather than synchronous. This is my favorite example and I think it would take an alien invasion for us all to reach some accord.

Thai said...

Dr. John


Who knows?

But this may be one of these forest for the trees issues, or at the very least glass 1/2 full vs. 1/2 empty issues.

Credit cycles are as old as mankind has been a collective and somehow we have always seemed to muddle through.

In the mean time, I might add that we are currently most definitely being invaded by aliens- e.g. the singularity (and sync) is near- and we tend to forget this all the time.

Indeed, if you think on it, we are cooperating through the use of a cooperative alien allowing us to communicate asynchronously over 1000 miles right now (I'm in DC). ;-)

Or another way of looking at all this mess is through the lens JP has been suggesting and as someone who sees boundary conditions everywhere, I agree with this general approach (I might have a nit-picky disagreement with Xenakis' focus on population pressures as opposed to societal energy consumption which is related to both how much energy the society has and how much it uses individually and collectively, but the net result is the same- and note I am NOT a PEAK OILER in the traditional sense of the word).

Or you can be hopeless

But look around you, right now the internet/blogging is destroying modern media/newspapers, etc...

People/individuals are fracturing along their individual value systems in ways never possible before.

This can lead to groups going to war, no doubt, but it can also lead to groups ignoring each other as well.

Time will tell

As Edwardo's Mark Twain quote reminds us, nothing really changes that much except the window treatments.

Dr John said...

Thai, you continue to open my eyes to new ways of looking at the world. Thank you. You have the best links. Some like Xenakis, quite disturbing. It seems quit hopeless in some ways. Does this not leave you with that feeling? You seem to have some optimism. John

Thai said...

That is very kind, thanks

re: optimism vs. pessimism

I think it is one of those "I'll give you a different answer depending on which day of the week you ask me". Monday I'm optimistic, Tuesday not so much, etc...

I intellectually really do understand that pessimism is no more logical than optimism.

And I am a glass 1/2 empty kind of guy and I can look at the mess which is health care and get depressed at times.

But then again I realize that with my own eyes if I am honest, I see signs this is repeating itself right now and to the extent it does, so we can have universal coverage and it not cost too much, that is wonderful... Though bad for your and my job security, oh well. ;-)

There are stories like this

Or stories like this (miles driven down means less car crashes, etc...)

And stories likethis


Of course one can find the other 1/2 of this equation everywhere if they want to look for it as well, you and I see these stories every day at work. :-(

But to the extent we stop spending our money on silly things like car crashes, etc... (or to quell Deb's nerves around the use of the word "money", substitute "resources" or any other word you want) then we have a lot more resources for other hopefully better uses.

Personally I'm hoping for more basic research but that's just me.

Edwardo and I have chatted for years around these issues and he said something the other day I strongly agree with, namely: "there is a lot of misallocation of resources right now". Of course seeing this does depend on what viewpoint you are looking at the issue from, etc...

I think Deb is right to periodically chide me and others that pessimism is just as irrational as anything else. For the truth is we really just don't know and our own science, the thing I do have the most faith in all the world in so to speak, is telling us this every day- e.g. that it is impossible to predict what will happen.So at least we should enjoy the ride.

... And hopefully meet a few interesting travelers along the way, who as JP says were always there but "just normally not more than 1 in every five villages or so. :)"

It is true that the older I get, the more nihilistic I become as I see the implications of the conservation of energy all around me; as Edwardo once put it, "it is increasingly hard to figure out who to trust". And in the end, I am strongly for and against certain things as any here will attest. I have simply learned that after many years of trying to find the truth on these issues, the number of things left on my list is much smaller than I once thought.

So cheer up. There are lots of people who will sync and cooperate with you, honest. They and you often just don't know how.

Be well

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