October 9, 2009

1/f Scaling and Emergent Pattern Formation in Complex Systems

1/f scaling (or 1/f noise) refers to a scaling relation followed by fluctuations that have been widely observed in nature. 1/f fluctuations have been observed ubiquitously across different disciplines of science (e.g. chemistry, psychology, biology). In specific relation to cognitive neuroscience, 1/f scaling has been observed widely in fMRI measurement series and treated, generally, as noise to work around as opposed to an object of study. The challenge is that since 1/f fluctuations seem to be present throughout the brain, they do not help localize specific cognitive functions to specific areas of the brain. However, studies have shown that the appearance of 1/f fluctuations in fMRI measurements change as a function of cognitive variables.

Whereas some researchers argue that 1/f scaling is a byproduct of processes that are irrelevant to theories of cognition, others argue that 1/f fluctuations reflect a general and essential principle of emergent pattern formation in complex systems, including cognitive systems.

In a past study Kello, Beltz, Holden and Van Orden examined the relevance of 1/f scaling to cognitive function in four experiments using simple and choice response tasks. (For full access to the paper, click here.) The results of this study supported the emergent coordination argument and the researchers concluded that “the generality of 1/f scaling in cognitive performance is evidence that cognitive functions are universally formed as emergent patterns of physiological and behavioral activity”.

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