Unifying Large- and Small-Scale Theories of Coordination

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Coordination is a ubiquitous feature of all living things. It occurs by virtue of informational coupling among component parts and processes and can be quite specific (as when cells in the brain resonate to signals in the environment) or nonspecific (as when simple diffusion creates a source–sink dynamic for gene networks). Existing theoretical models of coordination— from bacteria to brains to social groups—typically focus on systems with very large numbers of elements (N→∞) or systems with only a few elements coupled together (typically N = 2). Though sharing a common inspiration in Nature’s propensity to generate dynamic patterns, both approaches have proceeded largely independent of each other. Ideally, one would like a theory that applies to phenomena observed on all scales. Recent experimental research by Mengsen Zhang and colleagues on intermediate‐sized ensembles (in between the few and the many) proves to be the key to uniting large‐ and small‐scale theories of coordination. Disorder–order transitions, multistability, order–order phase transitions, and especially metastability are shown to figure prominently on multiple levels of description, suggestive of a basic Coordination Dynamics that operates on all scales. This unified coordination dynamics turns out to be a marriage of two well‐known models of large‐ and small‐scale coordination: the former based on statistical mechanics (Kuramoto) and the latter based on the concepts of Synergetics and nonlinear dynamics (extended Haken–Kelso–Bunz or HKB). We show that models of the many and the few, previously quite unconnected, are thereby unified in a single formulation. The research has led to novel topological methods to handle the higher‐dimensional dynamics of coordination in complex systems and has implications not only for understanding coordination but also for the design of (biorhythm inspired) computers.

Original languageEnglish
Article number537
Number of pages19
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 27 Apr 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding: For the last 10 years, this research was supported by NIMH Grant MH080838 and the FAU Foundation.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 by the author. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Haken–Kelso–Bunz
  • Kuramoto
  • biological coordination
  • complex systems
  • coordination dynamics
  • Biological coordination
  • Coordination dynamics
  • Complex systems


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