A (periodical) critical condition is functional for the brain, and for the International System

Brain network

The brain depicted as a network (Source: wired.com).

Both the brain and the System qualify as complex systems. Criticality is a functional condition for both systems, as I explain in this article.


In one of the previous articles – “A useful metaphor to explain simultaneous chaos and patterns in the International System” – I discussed the coexistence and interaction between chaotic weather dynamics, and patterns in atmospheric conditions that can be attributed to the tilted axis of Earth, and Earth’s rotation around the sun. I explained that in the System, a similar phenomenon can be observed: The coexistence and interaction between chaotic non-systemic war dynamics, and underlying ‘emergent’ longer-term patterns.

In the System, chaotic non-systemic war dynamics, which are intrinsically unpredictable, coexist and interact with highly predictable longer term ‘underlying’ patterns. The chaotic nature of non-systemic war dynamics and these patterns both point to the deterministic nature of the System and its dynamics.


Circular trajectories in phase state during the first relatively stable period (1495-1618), I consider another indication for the chaotic nature of non-systemic war dynamics in the System (see study).


Patterns in the dynamics of non-systemic wars during successive war cycles (see study).

Not only atmospheric dynamics and the war dynamics of the System show similar properties at a certain level of abstraction, this also is the case with certain properties of the dynamics of the brain and mind, and the war dynamics of the System.

Both the System and the brain consist of many interconnected ‘units’: The System consists of many interconnected individuals, communities, social (sub) systems, states, etc. that interact regularly, based on (evolving) rule sets; through their multitude of interactions these ‘units’ produce certain self-organized patterns (accelerating war cycles, with very consistent properties), and form a complex system.

The brain is composed of many interconnected neurons that form a complex system, from which thought, behavior, and creativity emerge through self-organization (See: ‘Scale-free dynamics and critical phenomena in cortical activity’).

The notion that the brain (but also ecosystems, for example) can be considered a complex system, is far more advanced – and accepted – than is the case for the System, we are integral parts of. International Relations Theory seriously lacks behind other scientific disciplines in the concepts it has developed, and in its contribution to our understanding of the world we live in. A subject I will not discuss now.

Because both the brain and the System qualify as complex systems, means that insights in the workings of the brain, and how the brain and mind interact could also provide useful insights and clues in the workings of the System (and vice versa).

Approaches developed by modern complexity science can be used to investigate the organizing principles of complex networks (Albert and Barabási, 2002), including the brain, and the System, which both – as I explained – qualify as complex networks.

Brain research – based on these insights – suggest “that brain dynamics are always close to critical states – a fact with important consequences for how brain accomplishes information transfer and processing”. And that “Capitalizing on analogies between the collective behavior of interacting particles in complex physical systems and interacting neurons in the cortex, concepts from non-equilibrium thermodynamics can help to understand how dynamics are organized. In particular, the concepts of phase transitions and self-organized criticality can be used to shed new light on how to interpret collective neuronal dynamics.

In this article, I discuss ‘criticality’ and some observations regarding criticality in the brain, and periodic criticality of the System of which systemic wars – I argue – are manifestations. In the brain, as well as in the System, criticality has a function to optimize the operation of these respective systems.


Criticality and critical points refer to a typical condition of systems, and is a phenomenon related to phase transitions. At a critical point phase boundaries vanish, and the system typically has a correlation length of ‘one’ (the size of the system itself). The correlation length measures the characteristic distance with which the behavior of one element of the system is correlated with or influenced by the behavior of another element. A critical condition of a system, ‘enables’ – because of a correlation length of one – system-wide information exchange and coordination.

Brain research (I referred to) suggests that the brain is in a ‘permanent’ – self-organized – critical condition, which would support the brain’s primary function: information processing (by enabling system-wide communication and coordination).

I argue that a critical condition of the System (that is systemic war), enables – is a prerequisite for – the design and implementation of (system-wide) upgraded orders. Design and implementation of upgraded orders – that concern the organization of the System – require system-wide communication and coordination; a correlation length of one enables this.

It can be argued that in both cases – in case of the brain and the System – criticality is functional, respectively to optimize information processing by the brain, and development of the System to a next level of organization, to ensure the balanced fulfillment of basic requirements by states in the anarchistic system. In both cases, criticality is related to survival (of an individual) and of states and their populations in the System.

A critical condition can be identified by typical so called scale-free dynamics; as I argue in my research such scale-free dynamics can be observed a several properties of the war dynamics of the System (see study).


In the previous paragraph, I mentioned the phenomenon of self-organized criticality (SOC). Brain research suggest that the brain could be a SOC-system. To qualify as a SOC-system, a critical condition must be the so-called attractor – preferred ‘position/condition’ – of the System, it is ‘attracted’ by (constantly driven towards). This does make sense for the brain, to be a SOC-system.

However, I argue, the System does not qualify as such. Although periodic criticality is highly functional for the System – to be able to communicate and coordinate at a system-wide scale (necessary to periodically design and implement upgraded order) – a permanent critical condition the System would not survive (and would not make sense).

Criticality of the System – although functional – has obvious disadvantages: (1) The need for increasing amounts of energy (provided through tensions) the System must accumulate, and (2) the increasing destruction the use of this energy causes. Permanent criticality does not serve the System (and its components), and would cause its destruction.

The moment an upgraded international order is implemented – and the accumulated tensions (energy) are released (used) – the System, again settles in a subcritical condition. The subcritical condition – relatively stable periods, when a functioning international order is in place – allows the (components of) the System to grow and develop; a process that at the same time charges the System for a next critical condition (systemic war), and upgrade.