Mark Kraus

Is a Murmuration a Conscious Thing?

AI and Integrated Information Theory may shed light into the nature of emergent systems
A starling murmuration. Credit: Rhys Kentish
By Mark Kraus
Published Sep. 25, 2020. Updated Jan. 6, 2024.
It’s the stuff of pure beauty, winter afternoons when I bring my dogs to the salt pond down the road from the house. Above the tall grass and opposite the beach, I sometimes find starlings in silhouette, electrified black clouds meandering across the sky. The pattern is fimilar — a loose sway then an electric shock; a chaotic aerial ballet called a murmuration. It's a performance for no apparent reason or audience, moving in perfect choreography and time.

Sciences have, for years, struggled to understand the purpose of the event. Recent studies have purposed that the intricate dance may be a behavior to ward off predators, like hawks who wait and watch the congregation, hoping to find a bird that wanders off. Computer modeling has shown that it could be the result of a kind of aerial schooling, where the instinct to hide within the group produces the phenomemnom. The mumuration may even be a type of conciousness, an organzied dance that produces an emergent thing for a fledding moment in time. Information therory, or the study of the transmission and processing of signals, could offer even further clues. As with most beautiful things, just accepting its wonder as a natural and breath taking work of art might be enough for most of us.

A bold hypothesis: the murmuration can be imagined as a group of neurons, a hive mind floating in the sky. We have witnessed information exchanged between bees in this way; sharing knowledge about flower location, quality, and even time of day within the nest. Researchers have observed that birds also share information about food location in communal roosts. The murmuration could be seen as an emergent instruction module, a command-and-control object that begins to act on the starlings’ actions once a critical density is reached, maybe even imprinting information as memory. It could work like language, the flock communicating about where the best food source is, distance travelled since the most recent migration, or about that hawk by the tree in the tall grass. A spontaneous flying computer processor downloading data to itself and the birds within it.

The murmuration could be seen as an emergent instruction module, a command-and-control object that begins to act on the starlings’ actions once a critical density is reached”

According to integrated information theory (IIT), one theory of how consciousness might emerge, the question should be framed like this: is the information in a system, its rules and motivations, more integrated into the whole of the system than is stored in its individual units — and to what degree? In other words, the starlings that produce the a murmuration might be hard wired to produce a murmuration or the murmuration dictates the bird’s behavior based information being exchanged through it. Consciousness might work like a baton, getting passed upwards in a hierarchy — like neurons in up to our concious experience or from the birds up to the murmuration once it forms. This could be like the feeling we get when we lose ourselves in something bigger, like at a stadium concert or a football game. For a moment we are part of something bigger. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

With the prevelence of Artificial Intelligence (AI), some researchers have begun to study would make a system conscious. Concepts like the singularity — where inteligent machines increase their potentil exponentially — and the Turning Test — a bellweather of when AI becomes indistinquishable from humans — have been popularized in science fiction. Both obscure a more revealing truth about the nature of conciousness, that there is nothing that says a nueral network must be particularly complicated to be self-aware. In fact, slime molds in the lab have demonstrated some suspiciously convincing decision-making behavior, according to researchers. Humans also have no standard or reliable measure for the quantity or quality of consciousness. Machine learning has shown that all that is really needed is an input, a goal, and a system with some processing power to create an intelligence that out performs our own abilities. Like in the case of neural networks that identify disease that a doctor can’t or a chess-bot that can best even the world’s greatest players. There is also nothing that says consciousness can’t be fleeting, existing over separate moments in time without memory or foresight, or that it can’t take place over great distances — as in some long shot theories about the dark matter that might be driving the formation of galaxies.

Like our own conscious experience, the system that drives the murmuration is cumulative, it takes a certain number of birds to form. Data about its own state, its density and size, or how long it’s been happening is not available to individual starling. Only the murmuration as a thing can be said to own the knowledge about itself. If we think of this twisting black cloud as a separate entity from the birds, like our conciousness is from our neurons, we might start see it as something that has come to exist. Think of it as a kind of Boltzmann brain, its neurons and nerve cells as the birds themselves, their eyes and ears, each abrupt turn a firing in a fleeting moment of frenzy. As our brains evolved from a collection of nerve cells, the murmuration may have developed from the complex behavior of the birds. Imagined this way, it’s not too far a leap to claim that the information owned by the system, the murmuration, is an entity onto itself.

Scienctists observing the starlings, computer modeling have shown the murmuration develops when individual birds follow two rules. First, they keep close to the group. The birds move in sets of around six or seven at a time — probably just enough to keep track of in their field of vision. Each bird has different groups in their set, linking them to the larger murmuration like a mesh network. Second, the birds aim for the optimal light density within the murmuration. Like a light meter measuring for the right exposure, the starling adjusts its wings to find that perfect place where the darkness and light are just right. Imagine that place in a crowd of people that is just enough to see out and just enough to blend in. These rules are followed while avoiding collisions in the cacophony of squeaks and screeches — rapid twists-and-turns in an adrenaline-fueled flight. Change in direction happens in an instant, like a phase transition, yet it’s rare for a bird to be injured.

Another possibility, and the leading theory, that the murmuration is simply a way of frightening off predators. We assume this in a similar looking systems like sardine bait balls, where the fish are whipped into a frenzy by dolphins or tuna. Explained as a herding instinct and a reaction to fear, it’s an ineffective strategy, as it often results in the destruction of the school, with the remaining sardines, exhausted and confused, being picked off one by one by smaller scavengers. In the case of a murmuration, hawks are sometimes seen engaging with the flock, but they usually only make off with just one or two birds. Either the murmuration is much more effective than the bait ball or they serve different purposes.

We can’t ask the starlings what their up to or even if they are aware that their ritual might be an emergent consciousness. We can observe the murmuration and chop it into segments of its movement and rules to reveal its patterns and physical characteristics, but this misses the point. If what we are witnessing is something coming into being, the physical manifestation of a packet of information; a fever dream of distances, wind current speeds, and hawk threats, then we are looking at a puzzle no less complex than the firing of neurons in our own brain. There is a threshold where something flips from one state to another, a tipping point like when heat becomes fire, for example. This can happen in the quantum world simultaneously, known as superposition, when a state flips at the same time that it doesn’t, creating quantum weirdness. Maybe we can view a conscious system this way; different states of consciousness existing at once; the birds and the murmuration; the neurons and our own experience.

If consciousness is simply degrees of how much information is being processed — a presumption, without any tool to measure it — then surely information plays a crucial role. We don’t need metaphysics to acknowledge this, but without a switch in thinking, without accepting information as physical and foundational to our model of being then any theory of consciousness will be forced to make separate consciousness from the physical. Dualistic logic had self-served philosophers since they arrived upon the invention of the soul: a passenger within a finite mind, unaffected and unchanged once its earthly form ceases to exist. It’s a paradox that requires a shadow universe to describe, one that interacts with the physical but with its own atoms and other stuff, we must assume. Though, there are certainly still some who would insist on its existence.

Observing the murmuration as a culture, how humans share stories on stage or dance around a fire; or as the exchange of information, like the way a beehive communicates with individual bees, might show how emergence can develop from a rule-based system given the right feedback loops. Seeing information as physical gives us a framework for this emergence. And seeing consciousness as different states, levels of processed information, and not confining it to our own experience might finally give us insight into the most complex of mysteries. The stuff of pure beauty: rolling waves, tall grass swaying in the wind, or a fleeting murmuration, could just be signals in the noise; popping in and out of existence like a fleeting thought written in the sky.

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