The human brain doesn’t seem like it would have much in common with how water freezes into ice or heats up into a gas. But over the last decade, evidence has been mounting that the brain as a system functions much like water approaching the critical point of a phase transition. Now a team of Brazilian scientists has found additional evidence in rat brains that this might indeed be the case. The team described its findings in a recent paper in Physical Review Letters.
The notion of so-called “self-organized criticality” dates back to a landmark paper in 1987, when the late Danish physicist Per Bak concluded that nature’s exquisite order was the result of a kind of phase transition. That precise moment of transition is colloquially known as the “tipping point” or “critical point.”
A brain’s the thing
Typically, a classical phase transition only occurs when the temperature and pressure are just right for a given system. Self-organized criticality emerges spontaneously as the result of many local interactions between the many elements of a system, like millions of grains of sand running from the top to the bottom of an hourglass. The pile grows, grain by grain, until it becomes sufficiently unstable that the next grain to drop makes the pile collapse in an avalanche. The base of the pile widens, restoring stability, and the pile-up begins anew, until the sand pile hits the critical point again. Those avalanches follow a so-called “power law,” meaning smaller ones happen more often than larger ones.