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Emergent Emperors

By Timothy Cocks Science and the world 31 Dec 2013

Traffic Jams Lend Insight Into Emperor Penguin Huddle

“The researchers found that the waves of movements in a penguin huddle can originate from any single penguin and can propagate in any direction as soon as a sufficient gap, known as a “threshold distance,” develops between two penguins.”

Birds, ants, cities, snow flakes, free markets, traffic jams, huddles, brains… emergent patterns and systems are everywhere.  We’ve written about the notion of emergence in a few  posts and notes already.

We’ve suggested that based on a ton of research in the conceptual change and education science fields (for example Chi et al 2011), it is quite possible that people (therapists and patients) who understand emergent processes and patterns may be better able to explain and understand pain.

So what’s this got to do with Emperor Penguin huddles?

In their work, Chi et al (2011) list a number of key attributes that characterise emergent processes.  The story via the link above provides a lovely, real-world example of emergence while highlighting a number of these key emergent interactions; let’s look at just a few of these:

The interaction of the entire collection of all the agents together “cause” the observable pattern.

All the interactions have equal status with respect to the pattern (There is no leader or a subgroup of agents whose interactions are more controlling than others)

Interactions are undertaken by the agents with the intention of achieving local goals only, without any intention of causing the pattern. The pattern emerges from the local interactions of all the agents.

All agents interact in the same uniform way in the sense of following the same set of rules

All agents can interact simultaneously and independently 

The simple rule that the Emperor Penguins (the ‘agents’ in this pattern) follow seems to be “If any random penguin near me in the huddle moves more than 2cm away from me, move closer to that penguin”

With each of the Emperor Penguins in the huddle following this same rule, interacting independently but also simultaneously with other penguins to achieve this local goal, the collective interaction of many penguins causes the observable wave pattern.  The researchers also note that there are no “lead” penguins and each penguin is able to trigger off the pattern.

Now, getting a bit abstract and metaphorical, what if a penguin was replaced by a group of a few hundred thousand neurones in a brain; interacting simultaneously yet independently; interacting with hundreds of other groups of neurons throughout the brain.  No one group of neurones have an overarching “goal” but through all of this interaction, in response to incoming perturbations, information and environmental factors, a pattern emerges.

Might this be a nice metaphorical example of a neurotag?  Could we extend this metaphor a bit further and suggest that the emergent brain pattern (output) might be a certain movement or a pleasurable sensation; all our penguins shuffling together forming a wave in a certain direction.

But with a bit of a change in the environment; a change in wind direction or temperature or some other perturbation that needs some protective response over there or over here, the pattern changes, the penguins shuffle the other way and the wave moves in another direction, one that we experience as pain.

With the right person, this example might just stick.  Wouldn’t it be nice to see a patient and rather than say “how’s your pain today?”, ask “how are your penguins shuffling this morning?”

– Tim Cocks

Chi MTH, Roscoe RD, et al. (2011). “Misconceived causal explanations for emergent processes.” Cognitive Science 36: 1-61.


  1. It’s the application of chaos theory, dependent upon fractal geometry, applied to our work.

    About time.

  2. If I were a penguin and were to accept “What is” I would make that step towards my fellow penguin. However I do have a choice here and could decide to change the pattern by stepping in a completely different direction. It reminds me of that lovely NOI educational poster depicting the persistent pain patients spiral journey. Let’s get our Penguins thinking individually and shuffling in a new direction ……..yes, let’s ask “How are your penguins shuffling today”

  3. I find this notion of teaching about emergent process to be fascinating. While many readers would have probably thought “what is that all about,” it is my belief that identifying pain sufferers who have non existant emergent neurosignatures and then helping them achieve such signatures by stories such as penguin behaviour, ant nest activity and erosion (all emergent behaviours) will be critical for modern pain treatment.


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