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Complexity from Cells to Consciousness

Frisson is that feeling you get when you encounter something so stunning that it sends a tingle down your spine. 

For Conor Heins ’15 and me, a recent scientific theory has been the main source of our frisson lately. Early last year, we decided to organize a cross-disciplinary workshop with the hope that others would be similarly inspired. At the time, if you had told me that organizing this niche scientific workshop would lead us to the beaches of Thessaloniki, Greece, with several recent Swarthmore alumni, I would have scoffed in disbelief. Surprise: That is precisely what happened.

The idea that motivated us to organize this workshop originated from neuroscience as a principled way of understanding how brains perceive, interpret, and act on their environments. Dubbed the free-energy principle, this framework is built on the idea that in order for us to survive, our brains must be able to predict things in our environments. Surprising events are, by definition, things we observe but did not predict, and the rationale behind the free-energy principle is that our brains construct models—hunches about our environment—for the purpose of minimizing surprising events in the future. Simply put: Brains tend to avoid surprise.

Over the past five years, Conor and I have started to see this framework applied across a vast range of scientific domains: from the predictive capabilities of plants, to political ideology and political movements, to the study of consciousness, to image processing, to behavioral economics, to climate science, and more. We wanted to organize a workshop at the 2018 Conference on Complex Systems to highlight how these various fields were getting a lot of mileage out of this relatively intuitive idea: Complex systems in general can be described as surprise-minimizing. We called the workshop “Complexity from Cells to Consciousness” (

Of course, the irony about organizing a workshop around the idea of avoiding surprise is that, while planning this, Conor and I were surprised by just how many other Swarthmore alumni were also passionate about these ideas—such as Antonia Violante ’16, an associate at the nonprofit Ideas42, which uses behavioral science research to design solutions to social problems, and Chris Lynn ’14, a physicist who studies brains at the University of Pennsylvania.

Wired magazine recently described the free-energy principle as maybe “the most all-encompassing idea since Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection,” and this past September, Conor, Antonia, Chris, and I spent several frisson-filled days in Thessaloniki discussing exactly that. We marveled at the power a single idea can have, bringing the four of us halfway around the world just to learn more.

The only thing that didn’t surprise us was Swarthmore’s role. We received an education in an environment that fostered interdisciplinarity, encouraging a passion for ideas while providing us with rigorous training—an ideal place for developing the next generation of thinkers in this new scientific renaissance.