Monday, May 21, 2012

Stimulus

Masses are moved by stimulus, or lack of it, in fascinating patterns. Birds feeding on grains that Brigitte spread, out back, scatter in a burst when I open the screen door. We used to visit a lake when our children were little where ducks had a favorite spot. You needed but approach it, and they came toward you. People often threw bits of bread to them. The ducks came because of the bread, the people came because of the ducks. The first time we saw this we made a mental note to bring our dried bread in a sack the next time we came. So did others, obviously. Stimulus.

Fish swim in circles—which fascinates biologists. Is the behavior adopted to confuse predators? Or are schools of fish simply self-organizing entities, each individual reading the others’ behavior and doing likewise? Long ago I read a fascinating study of this. The authors observed that a circling school can be disrupted by a single fish that suddenly veers off, out of the circle. All those around it immediately follow, and the pattern then changes. Why do they circle? Lack of stimulus. Why did that single fish suddenly veer? Presence of stimulus.

Stimulus is ultimately information signaling change—and the behavior is based on its interpretation. Does it signal potential gain or loss? If neither, it isn’t stimulus. Amusingly the word’s root is the ancient Proto-Indo-European sti, meaning point, prick, pierce. We get the word “stick” from it; the carrot and the stick.

What I find fascinating is how this very basic tendency works in humanity. The stimulus is often absolutely miles removed from producing any pleasure or pain to those swimming in that school. Such is the case in the three stimuli that have dominated the news of late: the JP Morgan Chase thing, the Facebook IPO, and the Greek elections. It must be important if so many birds are flying, fish are massively veering, editors front-paging, and pundits punting on TV.

Over the years I’ve noticed something interesting during the two seasons when birds get very clubby and swarm around together, Spring and Fall. Occasionally when I disturb them inadvertently at feeding, the great majority will fly away but one or two will stay on the grass or concrete and just keep pecking away. Looking at them closely, I’ve wondered. They always seem older to me, scruffier. Is your hearing failing, old fellow? Or have you just gotten wiser?

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