Research

On-going ECCO research projects

 

The following is an overview of the main topics currently being investigated in ECCO, including the names of the most directly involved researchers and some representative references. Elswehere you can find a summary of previous research. For more details, check our publications or Working Papers.

 


Mediator Mechanisms in the Evolution of Organization

This project in a sense provides the theoretical framework for all other, more specific ECCO projects. It tries to understand how initially independent or competing agents can form a cooperative system, through the evolution of "mediators". These are concrete or abstract systems that regulate the interactions between the agents, so as to minimize conflict or "friction", and to maximize synergy. The mediator scenario integrates several more specific models of self-organization and the evolution of cooperation. It helps us to understand evolutionary progress towards higher organization, complexity and adaptability. It further suggests concrete applications, e.g. in economic development or the regulation of self-organizing systems.

ResearchersHeylighenGershensonStewartMartens, Loengarov, Göktepe

Selected References:


Evolutionary-Systemic Philosophy

Here we investigate the new philosophy, including ontology, epistemology and ethics, implied by the science of complex, evolving systems. The resulting integrated world-view should allow us to address the age-old questions: What is? Who are we? Where do we come from? Where do we go to? What can we know? What is the meaning of life?...

ResearchersHeylighenVidal, Gershenson Gontier, StewartBernheim

Selected References:


Evolution and Development of the Universe

Here we look at cosmology and the origin and development of the universe from an "evo-devo" perspective, which combines the unpredictable dynamics of variation and natural selection of cosmic laws and constants, with the more predictable "developmental" dynamics of an organism growing towards more mature organization.

ResearchersVidalSmartStewart

Selected References:

 


High Energy Astrobiology

The increase of complexity in our universe might already have appeared outside Earth, and possibly beyond our level of development. Yet, all high energy astrophysics models implicitly suppose that phenomena we observe are "natural" or simple, rather than "artificial" or complex. Here, we investigate if advanced intelligent life exists in the universe, and develop criteria to distinguish between natural and artificial systems. Vidal (2011) has argued that some close binary star systems in accretion might be extraterrestrial civilizations. This hypothesis needs to be further assessed.

Researchers: Vidal

Selected References:


Self-Organization of Intelligent Artefacts

This research applies general principes of self-organization and distributed cognition to design an "ambient intelligence" environment, in which several simple artefacts and/or sensors (e.g. traffic lights) communicate and coordinate to provide an integrated service.

ResearchersGershensonBollen D, Kiemen

Selected References:


Bootstrapping paradox for learning novelties

This research is based on the discovery of similarity in self-organization and distributed cognitive systems to regulate novelty. Novelty is the common entity between discovery, creativity and innovation. The research aims at building a theory for novelty and make it applicable for regulating breakthrough innovation via the Internet

Researchers: KiemenHeylighen

Selected References:


Social Construction of Shared Categories

This  a four-year project funded by the FWO, in collaboration with the Social Cognition Lab (Psychology Department, VUB). It tries to determine how individually learned concepts or categories can become consensual through communication between the individuals, and in what ways the consensual concept is different or "better" than the individual ones. The issue is investigated in parallel through computer simulation and experiments with groups.

ResearchersHeylighenGershensonVan Overwalle, Biebaut

Selected References:


Connectionist Modelling of Social and Distributed Cognition

This collaboration builds on the previous one to examine more generally how cognitive processes can be distributed over different individuals connected by communication media. It assumes that these connections are variable, adapting to the task by reinforcing successful ones and weakening the others. Computer simulations of such processes help us to understand how knowledge and information propagate and self-organize within groups and organizations.

ResearchersVan OverwalleHeylighen

Selected References:


From Information Society to Global Brain

This projects, now performed by the ECCO subgroup "The Global Brain Institute", extends the connectionist perspective to better understand the future evolution of world society. The emerging knowledge-, network- or information society is conceptualized in analogy with the human brain, which is an immensely complex, self-organizing network of neurons and synapses, where information is processed in a distributed way, and where knowledge is developed through connectionist learning mechanisms.

ResearchersHeylighen, Weaver, Veitas, Busseniers, Kiemen, Rodriguez

Selected References:


Support Systems for Collective Intelligence

Collective intelligence is the ability for a group to produce better decisions than the best of its members. This requires various methods for integrating the ideas and experiences of the members into a collective preference. These methods are most easily implemented on the web, leading to tools such as recommendation systems based on collaborative filtering, electronic democracies, prediction markets, wikis, and social networking systems. We are studying these various approaches to find out their benefits and shortcomings, and use these insights to propose more powerful, integrated systems.

ResearchersRodriguezWatkinsHeylighenBollenKiemenCoenen,  Gershenson

Selected References:


 From Knowledge Organizing to the Interversity

The concept of stigmergy explains how collaboration and cognition can self-organize with the support of a medium in which provisional results are recorded, so as to stimulate further improvements. We apply this perspective to the collaborative organization of knowledge, in the form of a shared semantic network of concepts and their relations. A computational medium for such knowledge organizartion would support all the functions of a true university: research, to develop new concepts; education, to help students assimilate existing concepts; and assessment, to test in how far an individual has effectively assimilated concepts. The medium is intended to guide users towards a better grasp of concepts, either by pointing them to the most relevant existing material, or by eliciting new insights from them.

Researchers: NagarjunaHeylighen, KiemenRodriguez,

Selected References:

 


The Extended/Embodied Mind

From a cybernetic perspective, cognition is not limited to what happens inside the brain: it involves interaction with the environment via perception and action, and the use of tools to support thinking and memory. By redrawing the boundaries between mind and world, we hope to better understand fundamental cognitive processes (including consciousness). This will also help us to design external supports to augment individual and collective intelligence.

ResearchersKiemenBollen D., HeylighenNagarjuna

Selected References:


Neural Mechanisms of Intelligence

Here we try to understand and model the fundamental processes underlying intelligence (perception, inference, problem-solving, thinking, creativity, ...) as the spreading of activation through a network of concepts and associations. Major hypotheses are that such propagation is more efficient in more intelligent brains, that the essential function of cognition is anticipation, and that activation cycles "up" and "down" between percepts and concepts in a bootstrapping fashion. The framework is inspired by recurrent connectionist models and by the "memory-prediction" framework proposed by the brain theorist Jeff Hawkins in his book "On Intelligence".

ResearchersHeylighenMartin (Sheehan), Van OverwalleRodriguez

Selected References:


Memetics and Cultural Evolution

This projects further develops and operationalizes the theory of memetics, which studies the propagation of memes, "idea viruses" or units of imitation as a process of variation and natural selection, and its implications for the evolution of culture. Practical applications include "memetic engineering", i.e. the design of effective vehicles to propagate positive ideas, and the creation of of an "immune system" at the socio-cultural level to minimize the spread of harmful memes or "viruses of the mind", such as fundamentalist ideologies, superstitions, and unfounded rumors.

ResearchersMartin (Sheehan), VadaHeylighenChielens

Selected References:


Complex Systems Models of International Governance

Principles of systems, cybernetics, non-linearity and self-organization help us to better understand the interaction between actors in the international community, the emergence of new actors, and the possibility for creating a flexible system of governance that involves all stakeholders, while transcending the rigidities of the traditional legal framework.

ResearchersGöktepeGeeraertsTezcan

Selected References:


Measurement and Promotion of Well-Being

Happiness, quality-of-life, or well-being can be seen as the intrinsic value guiding personal and social development, providing the motivational equivalent of the evolutionary concept of "fitness". This projects tries to develop more accurate measures of this fundamentally subjective property, and to determine which basic factors promote the increase of social and individual well-being. The intention is to formulate guidelines that would most efficiently help us to augment overall well-being, individually, in the workplace, and in society at large. Such guidelines could be used to decide about policy at the global, national or organizational level, establishing a reliable standard for progress.

ResearchersBernheimIlianoHeylighen

Selected References:

 


Facilitating Interpersonal Problem-Solving

When two or more parties have to solve a problem together, their judgment is often clouded by avoidable conficts and emotional tensions. We try to develop methods that help them to reformulate the problem towards a win-win situation, using methods such as emotional management, empathetic understanding of the other's perspective, and systematic analysis of the cognitive preconceptions underlying the problem.

ResearchersSabharwalHolbrouckStewartHeylighen

 


Complexity Thinking for Innovation Management

The general concepts and principles of complexity, evolution and cognition apply in particular to present-day business, which takes place in an ever evolving ecosystem of competitors, suppliers, customers, technologies, rules, etc. A successful business entreprise requires constant innovation to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, and a broad and deep understanding of future opportunities and risks. The concepts and mechanisms underlying complex, adaptive systems need to be developed into a concrete toolbox for the entrepreneur or manager, that would help him or her to see clearly through the web of non-linear interactions and dependencies, and to steer an efficient, goal-directed course through the unpredictable changes that accompany them, ready to exploit any novel idea or opportunity.

ResearchersKiemen, GoldchsteinVadaHolbrouck, IlianoHeylighenGershenson

Selected References:

 


Resilience 

This project is focused on links between resilience, self-organisation, and evolution of agents in complex adaptive systems and pathways through which these agents can enhance their synergy, coordination and fitness. These dimensions are particularly important for the design processes and engineering methods of future urban structures and ecosystems.

Selected References

 

Complexity for Innovation Management

 Complexity Thinking for Entrepreneurs and Innovation Management


 

The general concepts and principles of complexity, evolution and cognition apply in particular to present-day business, which takes place in an ever evolving ecosystem of competitors, suppliers, customers, technologies, rules, etc. Successful business requires constant innovation to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, and a broad and deep understanding of future opportunities and risks. The concepts and mechanisms underlying complex, adaptive systems and evolutionary cybernetics need to be developed into a concrete toolbox for the entrepreneur or manager, that would help him or her to see clearly through the web of non-linear interactions and dependencies, and to steer an efficient, goal-directed course through the unpredictable changes that accompany them, ready to exploit any novel idea or opportunity.

 

Hypotheses

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Questions

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Methods

...

 

ResearchersKiemen, GoldchsteinVadaHolbrouck, IlianoHeylighenGershenson

Selected References:

 

Gifted Women: an appeal for personal testimonies

 Looking for GIFTED WOMEN to share their STORY with us for an ACADEMIC PAPER. 

 

Giftedness is defined as a complex of traits that includes unusual intelligence, creativity, curiosity, sensitivity, emotional intensity, and a strong drive to learn and to tackle difficult challenges. If as a woman you recognize yourself in the typical profile of a gifted person please read further. If you know women who fit this profile, please forward this message on to them. Thank you

 

We, Dr. Kate Kingsbury (social anthropologist) and Prof. Francis Heylighen (cognitive scientist), are investigating the reasons that keep many gifted women from realizing their full potential. We are exploring the factors inherent to the social system that might cause gifted women to feel inadequate or excluded. Our aim is  to develop an anthropological understanding of the difficulties that gifted women face, and support such women, so that they become aware that they are not alone in dealing with these difficulties.We are collecting personal testimonies from gifted women, which deal in particular with social and psychological factors, such as family expectations, shame, guilt, self-doubt, feeling abnormal, lonely, or excluded, that may have hindered you in fully realizing your potential. We are also interested in how you have surmounted such obstacles .

 

If you are ready to share your story, please send us your testimony as an email or in an attached Word doc (max. 800 words) to: drkatekingsbury@gmail.com and fheyligh@vub.ac.be

 

 If you want to remain anonymous, you can send us your story via an anonymous mail service, such as http://anonymouse.org/anonemail.html or https://anonymousemail.me/ (which allows replies without identifying the receiver)

 

You may also contact us directly if you wish, with any questions or comments.

 

If you are interested, please take the time to reflect upon and write down your personal experiences, especially with respect to the social influences that may have caused you to doubt your capabilities or hindered you in fully realizing them. Feel free to write to us to get some examples of stories we have collected thus far. We may quote some of the stories we receive in the paper we are writing, but always in such a way that the person who wrote it cannot be identified.

 

Everyone who sends us a story will get a copy of the paper we are writing on our research when it is ready, as well as the whole collection of (anonymized) stories we received, so that you can compare your experience with others....

 

Thank you for your interest,

 

Kate & Francis

 

Prof. Dr. Francis Heylighen

Free University of Brussels

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Heylighen

 

Dr. Kate Kingsbury

University of Oxford

https://oxford.academia.edu/KKingsbury

 

 


 

Characteristics often experienced by gifted individuals:

 Are you a good problem solver?

 Can you concentrate for long periods of time?

 Are you perfectionistic?

 Do you persevere with your interests?

 Are you an avid reader?

 Do you have a vivid imagination?

 Often connect seemingly unrelated ideas?

 Do you enjoy paradoxes?

 Do you set high standards for yourself?

 Do you have a good long-term memory?

 Are you deeply compassionate?

 Do you have persistent curiosity?

 Do you have an excellent sense of humor?

 Are you a keen observer?

 Do you have a love of mathematics?

 Do you need periods of contemplation?

 Do you search for meaning in your life?

 Are you aware of things that others are not?

 Are you fascinated by words?

 Are you highly sensitive?

 Do you have strong moral convictions?

 Do you often feel out-of-sync with others?

 Are you perceptive or insightful?

 Do you often question rules or authority?

 Do you thrive on challenge?

 Do you have extraordinary abilities and deficits?

 Do you learn new things rapidly?

 Feel overwhelmed by many interests/abilities?

 Do you have a great deal of energy?

 Often take a stand against injustice?

 Do you feel driven by your creativity?

 Love ideas and ardent discussion?

 Were you advanced developmentally in childhood?

 Have unusual ideas or perceptions?

 Are you a complex person?

 

If 75% of these characteristics fit you, you are probably a gifted adult. [adapted from the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development / Gifted Development Center]

 

Are You a Gifted Adult?

* I have always had an insatiable curiosity

* I set very high standards for myself and can be my own worst critic

* I have a powerful need to know and am a seeker of ultimate truths

* I have been criticized for being 'too much' of just about everything

* I have always felt deeply wounded by injustice and human suffering

* I can see many sides to nearly every issue and love a good debate

* I have a lot of energy and often feel driven by my own creativity

* I am often seen as the 'idea person' in a group

* I love puzzles, mazes, paradoxes, complex ideas, and words

* I often feel responsible for problems that don't actually belong to me

* Many times I have felt 'different,' and sometimes I feel like a minority of one

* I am a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist

* I have been criticized for not 'sticking with one thing'

* Honesty, integrity, and authenticity are very important to me

* I have a history of questioning rules and challenging authority

* I seem to be bothered by bright lights, aromas, and noises that others ignore

* I have a well-developed sense of humor that is somewhat offbeat

* I have maintained my childlike sense of playfulness and wonder

 

Recognize Yourself or Someone You Know?

The vast majority of gifted adults are never identified in childhood and don't know they are gifted. If you see yourself in more than half of these traits you are probably one of them.

 

[excerpt from  Jacobsen, Mary-Elaine: The Gifted Adult]

  

For more about gifted people and their problems, see:

Heylighen, F. (2006). Characteristics and Problems of the Gifted: neural propagation depth and flow motivation as a model of intelligence and creativity (ECCO Working papers No. 2006-05). (research paper proposing a broad theory)
Heylighen, F. (2004). Gifted people and their problems. Retrieved September, 12. (summary and excerpts from the literature)

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Interpersonal Problem-Solving

 


When two or more parties have to solve a problem together, their judgment is often clouded by avoidable conficts and emotional tensions. We try to develop methods that help them to reformulate the problem towards a win-win situation, using methods such as emotional management, empathetic understanding of the other's perspective, and systematic analysis of the preconceptions underlying the problem.

Researchers: Sabharwal, Holbrouck, Stewart, Heylighen

 


Improving interpersonal problem-solving through emotional management and empathy

 

The typical approach to problem-solving until now has been to focus either on the individual level (one person needs to solve a problem) or on the collective level (a large group of people need to solve a shared problem). In both cases, conflicts can be simply avoided: individually, because we assume that an individual is not in conflict with himself (although that is not always obvious); collectively, because we can aggregate the divergent opinions though voting or some other "collective intelligence" procedure. When there are 2, 3, 4, or 5 people, however, voting may either lead to no decision (when the votes are evenly divided), or to a decision where a single vote can push the decision in one way or another, thus suppressing the will of the majority minus 1, leaving the losing party with strong resentment.
 
In such cases, rather than simply aggregating different opinions, and hoping that the law of large numbers will suppress the effect of meaningless fluctuations, we need a more active or constructive method of synthesizing opposing visions. The ideal is to arrive at a win-win result, i.e. an outcome where all parties benefit. This typically requires a redefinition of the problem, because in the cases of conflict the problem is an outcome that one party sees as a gain, another party sees as a loss, and therefore the parties cannot reach agreement about which option to choose. The reformulation of the problem should turn a zero-sum game into a positive-sum one.
 
Such reformulation is often very difficult to achieve because of emotional arousal: since the solution proposed by one party is viewed as a loss by the other party, any push for this solution is experienced as a threat to that party's position. Our natural instinct is to respond to threat by arousal, i.e. a preparation for the fight or flight response mediated by the stress hormone adrenalin (or epinephrin).
 
 As evidenced by a number of psychological experiments, arousal leads to a narrowing of perception, because  attention becomes more focused on the perceived causes and effects of the threat, while becoming less sensitive to the wider context. Moreover arousal will lead to a more agressive or assertive stance, where one's own position is defended more vehemently. Such assertive action will be experienced as more threatening by the other party, who will get more aroused, and therefore react more aggressively in turn.
 
This positive feedback leads to a spiral of escalating conflict, where the parties become ever more aroused, more narrow in their focus, and less ready to compromise or to consider an alternative viewpoint. As a result, the problem appears ever more unsolvable. As an example, we may think about marital conflicts ending in divorce, or the on-going conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
 
This analysis of the vicious cycle suggests the following strategies to improve problem-solving:
  • reducing arousal by emotional management or regulation
  • increasing empathy, i.e. the ability to see the problem from the other party's perspective
  • reformulating the problem so that the new goal would be seen as beneficial by all parties

 

Emotional management may be achieved via different strategies, such as:
making people more aware of the effects of emotional arousal, so that they are less taken by surprise when they become aroused
  • suppression: simply repressing the emotion when it arises
  • relaxation: focusing the mind on something calming so as to let the arousal diminish
  • mindfulness: i.e. teaching people to detach themselves more from their emotions, in the sense of really experiencing them, but not going along with them, i.e. feeling them but not being controlled by them
 
Empathy is a more cognitive approach, where people need to try to conceive how the situation looks from the other's party point of view, and reason from that position in order to better understand the arguments and actions of the other party. The ability for empathy is probably to some degree inborn: several theorists have postulated that humans, as uniquely social animals, have a brain ready to develop a  theory of mind. Frank's latest research, which he presented in an ECCO seminar a couple of months ago, aims to uncover the particular areas of the brain used for inferring other people's goals, intentions and beliefs, and thus the neurophysiological basis of empathy.
 
But some people are clearly more empathetic than others, even though they probably have the same brain structure. One plausible factor is the security of attachment to the mother in childhood: individuals who experienced secure attachment are intrinsically more self-confident, less anxious, and  more open to experience. Therefore, they will be less prone to undergo the mechanism of feeling threatened -> arousal -> narrowing of perception -> reduced capacity for empathy -> more aggressive stance
 
Such "talent for empathy" seems a pretty stable personality attribute that is hard to change. However, it is likely that people can to some degree be taught to become more empathetic, by explaining what empathy is, and how the same problem can be perceived differentlty  by different people. Researching the best way to teach empathy seems a very promising approach to conflict management, but it requires first a better unnderstanding of how empathy really functions.
 
The last strategy, reformulating the problem into a positive-sum game, is as yet the least clear one. But this is the domain that is most directly connected to our on-going ECCO research into synergy, stigmergy, problem-formulation, mind-mapping, etc. 

 

Social Construction of Concepts

 Social Construction of Shared Categories

 

This is a four-year project funded by the FWO, in collaboration with the Social Cognition Lab (Psychology Department, VUB). It tries to determine how individually learned concepts or categories can become consensual through communication between the individuals, and in what ways the consensual concept is different or "better" than the individual ones. The issue is investigated in parallel through computer simulation and experiments with groups.

Researchers: Heylighen, Gershenson, Van Overwalle, Biebaut

Selected References: