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Surprising Science

Locusts, Lemmings, and Us

How are large groups of animals capable of astonishingly coordinated behavior? Do human crowds behave according to similar logic? This week Princeton evolutionary biologist Iain Couzin, a specialist in self-organized pattern formation in biological systems, sits down with Big Think for a talk about the bird flocks and the bee swarms.

Explaining the practical applications of his work, Couzin describes how a revised understanding of locust behavior may help curb ongoing plagues in Third World countries, and how studying the similarities between cellular and animal collectives may lead to breakthroughs in cancer research. Discussing human conformity, he also identifies a “Justin Timberlake effect” which holds as much sway on the financial markets as on the pop music scene. (On the other hand, he calls his own favorite band, The Pixies, a “revolutionary” break from the musical herd circa 1990.)

Boys are four times as likely as girls to develop autism. Girls are nearly twice as likely to experience depression. The immune system may be a player in these and other brain-health disparities.

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