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There are no eagles where I live, but plenty of starlings (though I’ve heard that they are in decline). At a certain time each year, starlings begin to congregate in ‘murmurations’ that produce those awe-inspiring crepuscular aerial displays of formation flying. They gather over their roosting site and perform their wheeling acrobatics before they settle for the night.

I attended a lecture on swarms once. I learned that large groups – fish, birds, insects… even crowds of people – though they might appear organised and orchestrated, are really random events. It seems that the individuals in a flock or shoal follow a basic set of rules, or algorithm, that keeps them together but safely apart, so that they don’t collide.

The effects are stunning, and they look planned, but they are simply the result of basic behaviour patterns followed by each member. For example, if everybody in a large group ensures that they constantly position themselves 50 centimetres from anyone else, the result is an electrifying choreography.

Some patterns are not so pretty, nor so useful. It can happen that we find ourselves bound by a set of rules in a relationship. Most of the time our patterns of interaction with others help us maintain harmony and order, and save us from having to constantly renegotiate our roles. But where a relationship is not working it might be precisely because of the patterns we have unwittingly fallen into.

Breaking a pattern can reveal fault-lines which can then be repaired (or not).


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