Prof. Kelso gave an invited talk at The Ninth Olympiad of the Mind, Keynote Lecture at the International Congress on Complex Systems in Sport

Prof. Kelso gave an invited talk at The Ninth Olympiad of the Mind in Chania, Crete (Sept. 14-17) the topic of which was Learning to live together. Prof. Kelso’s talk was entitled: “Walls and Borders and Strangers on the Shore: On Learning to Live Together from the Perspective of the Science of Coordination and The Complementary Nature“.

Abstract: To learn to live together requires a world mind-shift. In this talk I will attempt to articulate what this mind-shift involves and how it is constituted. As previously remarked in Olympiads of the Mind, the solution to learning to live together rests ultimately not on science or technology or economics or politics, but on human decency and compassion. Humanity must realize that our collective fates are intertwined both in terms of uniqueness and interdependence. Regardless of sex, race, religion, economic opportunities, individual passions or ambitions, we must somehow weave a “we” to see native and stranger on the same footing. We will not learn to live together until we face this collective reality. The science of coordination (Coordination Dynamics) and the philosophy that arises from and underlies this science (The Complementary Nature) offer a way to change the world to one we all need, one where together we can live in a truly relational way that is without prejudice and goes beyond simple tolerance of the other. Some of the key empirically-based concepts I will discuss are synergy— the “working together” aspect as a self-organized entity (in the sense of the physics of open, nonequilibrium systems) and as the significant unit of biological coordination (in the sense of synergistic selection); learning— the modification of pre-existing biases and dispositions; the nature of change— a process unpredictably sudden and abrupt or slow and tortuous depending on identifiable competitive or cooperative mechanisms; agency— a fundamentally relational and dynamic attribute not isolated in the individual mind; and finally, the metastable dynamics of the human brain— how the tendencies for the parts of the brain to integrate co-exist with tendencies for individual autonomy and segregation. I will present new experimental evidence which demonstrates that a critical level of diversity separates these two idealized régimes. Whereas bistability is the basis for polarized either/or thinking, the metastable régime—which contains neither stable nor unstable states (no states at all in fact)—gives rise to a far more fluid, complementary mode of operation (hence, The Complementary Nature) in which it is possible for apparent contrarieties (e.g., integration~segregation, unity~diversity, individual~collective, self~other, cooperation~competition, chance~choice, boundary~domain, etc., etc.) to coexist in the mind at the same time. The political, ethical and educational consequences of the metastable brain~mind that sees contrarieties as complementary are many, including a fundamentally “new” triadic logic not of the excluded (after Aristotle) but of the included middle, signified by the tilde or squiggle (~) symbol. The metastable brain~mind, if we can tap into it, signals the end of dualism, the grand “either/or,” and “the perpetual contradiction of opposites” that is at the very core of religious and ideological conflict throughout history.


Dr. Kelso giving a lecture at the 9th Olympiad of Mind at the Orthodox Academy of Crete.
Dr. Kelso giving a lecture at the 9th Olympiad of Mind at the Orthodox Academy of Crete.

Prof. Kelso also gave the Opening Keynote Lecture entitled “Principles of Coordination: Synergies of Synergies” at the International Congress on Complex Systems in Sport: Linking Theory and Practice, at Camp Nou, Barcelona (October 5-6, 2017) . 

Prolegomenon. As a result of scientific research conducted in laboratories around the world, principles of self-organizing coordination dynamics  have been shown to govern patterns of coordination (a) within a moving limb and between moving limbs; (b) between the articulators during speech production; (c) between limb movements and tactile, visual and auditory stimuli;(d) between people interacting with each other spontaneously or intentionally; (e) between humans and avatars; (f) between humans and other species, as in riding a horse; (g) between babies and mobiles; and (h) within and between the neural substrates that underlie the coordinated behavior of human beings as measured using MEG, EEG and fMRI (Fuchs & Kelso, 2017; Kelso, Dumas & Tognoli, 2013). The principles embrace perception, development, learning, adaptation, decision-making, intentional change and basic social interactions. The evidence suggests that laws of coordination in complex, neurobehavioral dynamical systems deal with collective properties that emerge from the interactions among many parts and processes. So, how did all this come about?

Background. Many moons ago, my colleagues and I (including many students) set out to understand (if not solve) the problem of coordination in living things. Movement, the animated, living movement of human beings was the test field chosen in part because of a love for sports and the performing arts. The first step was to identify the significant units of biological coordination and their key properties. This is not a trivial problem nor can it be assumed a priori: animate movement is not made up merely of a list of component parts such as molecules, muscles, neurons and brains, but rather has to do with how these many parts function as a unitary ensemble when human beings engage in the multitude of tasks they typically perform, some at a very high level of skill.  The second step was to explain how, that is through which laws and mechanisms, such units are assembled, how they adapt, persist and change as circumstances change, and why they are significant units in the first place.

We found that the significant units of coordination (maybe of life itself) are functional synergies or coordinative structures. “Synergies of meaningful movement” (to use the philosopher-biologist Maxine Sheets-Johnstone’s coinage) have been hypothesized as important for motor control for over 100 years but until our research in the late 70’s and early 80’s the evidence was anecdotal or restricted to so-called ‘pre-wired’ rhythmical activities such as locomotion and respiration. Much work has been done since, of course, and books written (e.g. Kelso, 1995; Latash, 2008; Sheets-Johnstone, 1999/2011). So why are synergies preferred over other candidates such as currently popular circuits and networks? Only synergies embrace variability in structure and function. Only synergies handle the fact that many different components can produce the same function, and that the same components may be assembled to produce multiple functions. Synergies or coordinative structures are not restricted to muscles; they have been identified at many scales from the cellular and neural, to the cognitive and social.

The deeper reasons for synergies as the basic units of biological organization are that they are the result of two elemental forces, evolution and self-organization. When cooperation occurs between two or more entities and that cooperation proves to be functionally advantageous, synergistic selection is deemed to occur. Self-organization—the discovery of emergent cooperative phenomena in natural systems—has also been demonstrated in coordinated movement and the brain. For the latter, self-organizing principles are expressed in terms of informationally coupled dynamical systems (coordination dynamics). A key concept is the so-called order parameter or collective variable, a term borrowed from physics that expresses cooperative behavior in systems with many degrees of freedom (Haken, 1983). It turns out that order parameters (OPs) are important for understanding any kind of coordination, from the brain to players in teams, from ballet dancers to championship rowers, because they constitute the content of the underlying dynamics. OPs cannot be assumed but have to be identified in the particular system or activity being studied or described. For example, relative phase, frequency ratios, amplitudes, etc., can act as order parameters for relatively low-dimensional systems. In high-dimensional systems like the brain, time-dependent spatial modes have been shown to capture the coordination dynamics in both experiment and theory. Instabilities are a means of order parameter identification as well as a source of testable predictions. Not only are OPs expressions of emergent patterns among interacting components and processes, they in turn modify the very components whose interactions create them. This confluence of top-down and bottom up processes results in circular causality, an essential concept in coordination dynamics. In short, unlike the laws of motion of physical bodies, laws of coordination are expressed as the flow of coordination states produced by functional synergies or coordinative structures. The latter span many different kinds of things and participate in many processes and events at many scales. In their most elementary form, coordination laws are governed by symmetry (and symmetry breaking) and arise from nonlinear coupling among the very components, processes and events that constitute the coordinative structure on a given level of description.

Developments. Can coordinative structures be learned? Of course they can. Not only do they underlie the process of learning, they dictate the very nature of the changes that occur as a result of learning (Kostrubiec, et al., 2012 for review). In coordination dynamics, learning is shown to be the creation and stabilization of new synergies. New synergies arise from old synergies through competitive or cooperative mechanisms. Do synergies adapt? Of course they do. Recent empirical and modeling work on interpersonal coordination (Nordham, et al., in press) shows the form such adaptation takes: on the one hand, the component parts adapt to produce the collective pattern that people spontaneously adopt; on the other, the pattern formed modifies the component parts and their persistence (circular causality!). Modeling reveals that the key to adaptation is making the parameters of the interacting components dynamic, i.e., not fixed but time-dependent. Synergies are often used to mean cooperation. However, once their governing dynamics is revealed, it is clear that synergies possess both cooperative and competitive aspects. The coordination dynamics that underlies such dual, complementary tendencies is metastable and chimera-like (Kelso, 2014; Kelso & Engström, 2006; Tognoli & Kelso, 2014). For example, recent work (Zhang, et al., submitted) has studied spatiotemporal coordination in groups of eight agents (people) in real time. An interesting result, relevant perhaps for team sports, is that a critical value of diversity exists between the subgroups that form among coordinating individuals, separating régimes of integration and segregation. Complex systems research often deals with very large or very small numbers of components. The intermediate scale typical of teams is ‘messy’ but revelatory: it shows that synergies are not rigid coordination states; they are flexible and metastable. Finally, it is often remarked that team cohesion relies on everyone being ‘on the same wavelength’. New results using brain-to-brain coupling measures indicate that (dyadic) team coordination is associated with increased inter-brain coherence of beta and gamma rhythms in time intervals where subjects exchange key information in ecologically valid task settings (Dodel, et al., submitted).

Conclusion. A theory of coordination is fundamentally about softly assembled, self-organized, evolutionarily-based synergies expressed in the language of informationally coupled dynamical systems (coordination dynamics). It deals with relationships, connectedness, communication, coupling and context. At the level of team sports,goal-directed synergies of meaningful movement are the basis of coordination. Sports science might pay special attention to synergies, because according to coordination dynamics, they are the key to successful and highly skillful performance, as well as to clinical outcomes following injury or disease. Finding applications of coordination dynamics, a fairly new laboratory-based science of coordination (Kelso, 1992; 2009b)–itself a combination of Theory, Experiment, Analysis and Modeling (TEAM)—presents sports science with a challenge. It is a bit like asking what the applications of classical or quantum mechanics might be when they were first put forward. No one had the slightest idea. Yet the applications of these ideas changed the world. (Such statements are not meant to be pretentious, only to make the point that the research findings and concepts of coordination dynamics described here, may or may not be applicable to sports, dance, coaching, teaching, rehabilitation, and so forth. There are plenty of signs that they will, e.g. Teques et al., 2017, but this is still an open issue). In Joan Miró’s paintings of black and white with splashes of color, the calligraphic strokes look like they could be the traces and trajectories of a football team. As in Miró’s forms, the beautiful game generates forms which in turn suggest space and movement and further forms—the game develops its own direction on multiple time scales, apparently out of conscious control. Making sense of the gestures and movements of others (synergies of meaningful movement of team mates?) and making oneself intelligible by way of one’s own synergies of meaningful movement is the basis of who we are. Maybe of team sports too. Synergies of synergies. Up and down, within and between, through and through.


The work described herein was supported by the US National Institute of Mental Health (MH080838), the Chaire d’Excellence Pierre de Fermat, and the Davimos Family Endowment for Excellence in Science.


Dodel, S., Tognoli, E., & Kelso, J.A.S. (submitted) Social coordination and degeneracy in the brain

Fuchs, A., & Kelso, J.A.S. (2017) Coordination Dynamics and Synergetics: From finger movements to brain patterns and ballet dancing. In Mueller, S., et al (Eds) Complexity and Synergetics, Heidelberg: Springer

Haken, H. (1977/83). Synergetics, an introduction: Non-equilibrium phase transitions and self-organization in physics, chemistry and biology. Berlin: Springer.

Kelso, J.A.S. (1992). Coordination dynamics of human brain and behavior. Springer Proc. in Physics, 69, 223‑234.

Kelso, J.A.S. (1995). Dynamic Patterns: The Self‑Organization of Brain and Behavior. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Kelso, J.A.S. (2009a). Synergies: Atoms of brain and behavior. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, 629, 83-91.

Kelso, J.A.S. (2009b). Coordination Dynamics. In R.A. Meyers (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Complexity and System Science, Springer: Heidelberg (pp. 1537-1564).

Kelso, J.A.S. (2014) The dynamic brain in action: Coordinative structures, criticality and coordination dynamics. In D. Plenz & E. Niebur (Eds.) Criticality in Neural Systems, John Wiley & Sons, Mannheim. Pp 67-106.

Kelso,  J.A.S., & Engström, D. A. (2006). The Complementary Nature, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Kelso, J.A.S., Dumas, G., & Tognoli, E. (2013) Outline of a general theory of behavior and brain coordination. Neural Networks, 37, 120-131.

Kostrubiec, V., Zanone, P.-G., Fuchs, A., & Kelso, J.A.S. (2012) Beyond the blank slate:Routes to learning new coordination patterns depend on the intrinsic dynamics of the learner —experimental evidence and theoretical model. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 212 doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00222

Latash, M. (2008) Synergy. Oxford University Press, Oxford: New York.

Nordham, C. A., Tognoli, E., Fuchs, A., & Kelso, J.A.S. (in press). How interpersonal coordination affects individual behavior (and vice-versa): Experimental analysis and adaptive HKB model of social memory. Ecological Psychology

Sheets-Johnstone, M. (1999/2011). The primacy of movement (2nd Edition). John Benjamins, Amsterdam/Philadelphia

Teques, P., Araújo, D., Seifert, L., del Campos, V.L., Davids, K. (2017) The resonant system: Linking brain–body–environment in sport performance. Progress in Brain Research

Tognoli, E. & Kelso, J.A.S. (2014). The metastable brain. Neuron, 81, 35-48.

Zhang, M., Kelso, J.A.S., Tognoli, E. (submitted) Critical diversity: United or divided states of social coordination