I came across an excellent article about epilepsy recently. There’s a common belief that a seizure is a kind of chaos of the brain. In fact, it’s the opposite. A seizure is where the complex patterns of electrical activity in the brain break down and are replaced temporarily with a single big co-ordinated pattern.
A normal brain is governed by chaos; neurons fire unpredictably, following laws no computer, let alone neurologist, could hope to understand, even if they can recognize it on an EEG. It is what we call consciousness, perhaps the most mathematically complex phenomenon in the universe. The definition of a seizure is the absence of chaos, supplanted by a simple rhythmic pattern that carries almost no information.
I was especially struck by that last phrase – “a simple rhythmic pattern that carries almost no information”. We have a strong tendency to think it’s the ordered, clear patterns which convey information, and that when there is no clear pattern, that there’s no clear information. Interesting how it’s the opposite!
I then came across this interesting study of the zone between order and chaos. There’s a place between order and chaos which scientists describe as “edge of chaos” (otherwise known as “far from equilibrium”). It’s a difficult place to hold, easily tipping into some form of order, or some form of chaos, but it’s found everywhere in complex systems.
Self-organized criticality (where systems spontaneously organize themselves to operate at a critical point between order and randomness), can emerge from complex interactions in many different physical systems, including avalanches, forest fires, earthquakes, and heartbeat rhythms.
Well it turns out this is exactly how the brain performs best – and here’s why –
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
If you are too structured, too ordered, too stuck in your ways, it’s harder to adapt when things change.
Interesting……complexity means it’s hard to predict what will happen, but this fine balance between order and chaos turns out to not only Nature’s favourite, it’s a great survival strategy. I suspect one of our biggest challenges in the world now is to learn how to be more adaptable and not so reliant on rigid structures and patterns.
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