Complexity Inside and Out: Brains and Ecosystems

Brains and ecosystems both exhibit the salient hallmarks of a natural complex system: a rich network of connections through which the parts of the system relate to and communicate with each other,  spontaneous self-organization to produce a higher level of order, and emergence of a completely new phenomenon. In a brain, that emergent phenomenon is perception or cognition. In an ecosystem, emergent phenomena include resilience and adaptation. In both cases, the higher-order phenomenon has characteristics not present in the lower levels of the system that produced it. The way brains’ neurons sync together to give rise to the emergent phenomenon of cognition can help us understand ecosystem function.

Rich Networks of Connections. Neurons all over the brain oscillate in harmony during perception. As Varela says, the neurons are “phase-locked” or “synchronized.” This “whole brain” response can only happen because the neurons  exist in a dense network of connections with one another. The connections are what permit “whole system” functions of communication and response. How does thinking of ecosystems this way impact your perception of biodiversity loss?

Self-Organization. The “whole brain oscillation” phase where all the cells suddenly fire in a single harmonic is a new level of spontaneous self-organization that isn’t seen in the firing of individual neurons or even groups of directly connected neurons. If you think of ecosystems engaging in spontaneous self-organization in a similar way, how does that impact your perception of the ways pesticides, herbicides, pollutants, and invasive species might impact ecosystem function?

Emergence. When your brain neurons spontaneously self-organize to oscillate in a “whole brain” way, an entirely new thing emerges: perception. Yet you cannot isolate a neuron and get anything more out of it than a weak electrical impulse. By itself, that little electrical impulse is not perception. Even if you laid out a number of neurons that were connected to one another, their connected firing would not produce self-organized firing that permitted perception to emerge. Perception emerges only when the entire healthy system of connected neurons operates as a single unit oscillating in phase in a living organism. In ecosystems, resilience and adaptation are higher-order phenomena that emerge from self-organization of the complex web of connected elements. How does seeing ecosystems this way impact the way you see human activities such as environmental engineering and environmental intervention?

Questions to facilitate your conceptual weaving process:

Many of us would hope that the ecosystems we depend on will respond in a healthy way to the challenges posed by climate change. If you consider the roles of (a) a rich network of connections, (b) self-organization, and (c) emergence in the healthy functioning of complex ecosystems, what are the most important kinds of things humans can do to make sure ecosystems will be resilient in the face of climate change, and able to adapt to changes that are too big to be survived through resilience alone?

Within that context, what sorts of behaviors in humans make those individuals or cultures more resilient?

How do cultural values interact with resilient behaviors driven by Western cultural paradigms that have very deep roots?

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