The Frightening Truth Behind the Collective Intelligence of Swarms

Crowds scare me. Seriously, if I had to list my top ten fears of all time, getting sucked into a crazed mob would probably rank number one. The scariest scene from the film “Natural Born Killers” isn’t all the horrors Mick and Malorie dish out. Nope. It’s when the prisoners mob the warden and tear him apart. Frightening.
Ninety-five people died in a crush at a soccer match at Hillsborough stadium, in Sheffield, England, in 1989. Taken from A NewYorker article.

Ninety-five people died in a crush at a soccer match at Hillsborough stadium, in Sheffield, England, in 1989. Taken from A NewYorker article.

Whenever I see a mob of people I get nervous. Mobs rob us of individual thought. People do things they’d never do when thinking rationally. Now, Scientists are beginning to understand why. People have known all along that collective swarms act differently.
Aristotle stated quite succinctly that “The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.” So then swarms of creatures function as more than just a bunch of individuals. Take the locust for example. It’s just a grasshopper. Plain and simple. But under certain conditions is transforms into the plague that is the locust.
A school of bigeye trevally in Malaysia from a NY Times article. Photo credit CARL ZIMMER Published: November 13, 2007

A school of bigeye trevally in Malaysia from a NY Times article. Photo credit CARL ZIMMER
Published: November 13, 2007

Iain Couzin, from the Collective Animal Behavior Lab in Princeton, recently discovered that locusts don’t work together out of a common goal. Nope. Each one wants to save its own butt. When the locusts get too close to each other, the nip at their abdomens. Unresponsive locusts become food.
It makes me wonder if human mobs react similarly. When the crowd hits critical mass (a certain density of people) folks bump and elbow you. Ultimately the individual gets pushed in the direction of the mob. Well, you get pushed or you get trampled.
Couzin discovered that three simple factors control swarms of creatures: Alignment (the desire to move in the same direction), Attraction (trying to stick together in a group), and Repulsion (even sticking together, creatures still want to maintain a certain distance).
You can see this everyday while driving on the freeway. All the cars have the same direction (of course, the road takes us the same way), yet there exist clumps of cars. Drivers are naturally attracted to other cars. If you’ve ever been tailgated you know this. The tailgater sticks close to you. If you switch lanes, the tailgater speed up to the next car. Repulsion plays a part to keep the drivers from crashing (usually).
Animal swarms do this naturally, typically as a defense. If the alignment is not that strong, the animals swim every which way. A tighter alignment, produces that doughnut shape we see in fish. The tightest alignment creates flocks of birds that veer and swoop as one. The birds aren’t a super-concious being (as some believe). Each bird is simply following the cues of the nearest dozen or so birds. Sticking close, but not too close. Amazingly, when a hawk heads toward the swarm of birds, they seem to react as one. Even the birds farthest from the hawk (that could never see it) veer away.
This amazing video shows starlings at Otmoor shifting and flying as one.
Want to learn more, check out the article from Wired.
Now, just keep to your feet in crowds, otherwise you’ll end up like the poor locusts.
Tim Kane
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3 comments on “The Frightening Truth Behind the Collective Intelligence of Swarms

  1. Crowds are the main reason I wouldn’t want to live in cities like Toronto or New York. Going with the flow of pedestrians in a benign situation, like during the rush to and from work, would be difficult enough without adding the frenzy of a mob mentality into the mix. It’s very scary – the stuff nightmares are made of!

  2. Tim: Two words for you. Hive. Mind. If you think this stuff is scary, check it out. It’s what the 1% is using to control the 99% and it’s not science fiction. LOVED the beautiful starlings. I believe the motion is a message for we humans.

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