Week A: What’s an attractor?

This post is part of a 26-week series, shared with my son at Julian Jotting

I’ve written A LOT about attractors in my academic past and feel like I’m cheating in some way choosing that as my first word. I also risk boring my poor son right out of the starting gate of this writing challenge. But it is indeed one of the first 3 or so words that came to mind, partly because of this great little talk I just watched by Nicky Case on the Long-now Foundation website. With Case’s talk, my clumps of interests in dynamic(al) systems principles, game design, and social systems collide into a bright “ting” of synergy. Case has created a bunch of beautiful, compelling games that help people really understand self-organization, chaos, and… attractors! She helps us visualize simply, but with such compelling examples, the emergence of stable patterns that have no “leader” that organizes them. Think flocks of starlings or the fight with your mother you ALWAYS seem to have even though no one really seems to be the one who started it: instantiations of attractors. Or consider amazing firefly swarms that fall into stable, synchronized blinky-blink patterns with no conductor providing the instructions. Case simulates these unchoreographed light shows with her lovely little game, Fireflies.

Résultats de recherche d'images pour « gif swarms starlings »

*An attractor is a term that comes from the dynamic(al) systems world of physics, chemistry and other “hard” sciences and has infiltrated all sorts of other disciplines, including developmental psychology. Maybe the most abstract and boring way to define it is that it is a relatively stable state towards which a system moves. Any open system, whether it’s a complex biological one, like the brain, or a simple one like a thermostat, show these attractor states. Visually, an attractor are often depicted as a deep well on a landscape; the behaviour of a system tends to be drawn towards these states and when in them, they can get stuck there, requiring a bunch of energy to push the system back out of the attactor.

Attractors are kind of awesome because once you really groc what they are, you see them all over the place. And they’re often the exact concept you need to describe very particular phenomena.