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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Modeling Group Behavior

Thanks to David for this one:

In this lecture, applied mathematician Steven Strogatz discusses the concept of synchrony (conscious and unconscious) in nature. When we see large masses of animals, such as schools of fish or flocks of birds, it is human to think that there must be some communication among the flock to produce such complicated flying patterns. Flying in packs is the safest way to fly (you have a smaller chance to be the unlucky one), but it is doubtful that birds can organize themselves so efficiently.

Strangely enough, it is likely that each bird is acting with limited interaction with the flock. Simulations have been created that model a flock of birds or school of fish using four simple rules:

Individuals are only aware of their closest neighbor
Individuals try to line up with this neighbor
Individuals tend toward each other
If a predator is near, get away

These four, individual-centered rules actually simulate schools of fish very well. This implies that these large masses of animals are not coordinated on a large scale, but simply all coordinate on a small scale.

Strogatz goes on to describe different manners in which conscious and unconscious synchronization occur. In a great example of people unconsciously walking in sync on a bridge, Strogatz shows how even humans can synchronize perfectly without conscious effort. As research in this field continues, I will not be surprised if more seemingly complicated animal behaviors are revealed to be the propagation of simple motives.

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