A Murmuration of Thought


Session Title:

  • Materialities and Networks

Presentation Title:

  • A Murmuration of Thought



  • What are the materials of thought? In a search for a physical basis we find neuronal networks, electro-chemical spikes traversing the networks, and a patterned and coherent flow of those spikes in time. From this activity consciousness emerges. Simple models can illustrate the processes and provide us metaphors for this emergence. Through metaphors we can understand (and explain) the power of these processes. One poetic model, a large flock of starlings also called a murmuration, parallels the structure of a simple neuronal network, and might point to aspects of mental activity and the emergence of something that transcends the simple behaviors of individual agents in a large well-connected group. A flock of birds has been traditionally modeled with each bird (agent) following three simple rules in flight: separation, alignment and cohesion. Birds as nodes in a network have connections (edges) to local flockmates. Individual birds move through space informed by their neighbors through attraction (alignment and cohesion) and inhibition (separation). Starlings can also see distant flock members and so are also informed by action at a distance. This suggests a structure of a small-world network. With a small change in flight rules, adding a small amount of distant information, the standard flocking model rapidly coheres into a murmuration and thousands of individual birds transform into one entity seeming to move with single intent though the twilight sky. This structure and this process are also what one would expect as thousands of neuronal spikes move through the dense, small-world network in our brains. At the very least we can see the beauty of emergence in the model, and wonder if the very act of imagining is itself the ebb and flow of thousands of simple actions in the process of becoming one thing—a human thought.