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Networks on the mind | #08
Nodes and edges and the systems we make of them
During my career in information and analytics I’ve learned there’s no more captivating a visualization than a really cool network graph. Everyone loves them. Such an intuitive way to represent underlying structure of a model.
I believe the structure of networks - representing elements as nodes and relations - is a principal pattern of organization in our universe. They can be used to model social networks, information systems, biological ecosystems, businesses, and more. It's often intuitive to think in networks; there's an essence conveyed through nodes and edges.
Network thinking refers to a scientific mindset where the focus of study is on the relationships between entities rather than the entity itself
Complexity: A Guided Tour - Melanie Mitchell
In this photograph from NASA I see a network of cities scattered across our earth. Lights on means people are home, then scaling in I see neighborhoods, suburbs, and countryside, all interconnected by trade, family, and communication.
That amazing feeling of being connected to one another is well illustrated by a graph. The idea of edges connecting nodes and carrying meaning is intuitive. We think about our friends, family, neighborhood and can imagine an intricate web of relationships. Then, scaling up, to consider nodes as connections between nations, cultures, or entire species.
When I moved to Santa Fe I quickly found friends of friends and became friends, expanding my network. This small world we know has a model. In 1998 Collective Dynamics of Small World Networks by Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz was published in Nature. This paper provided formulas and a structure to represent this phenomenon of social connections with graphs.
It turns out this pattern of social connections mimics the neural pathways within our brain. I do wonder if these small-world networks we intuit so vividly are intuitive because the network model of interactions maps to the architecture of our mind. From neurons to receptors and into the formula.
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As with healthy scientific debate there are nuanced views to this idea of the brain as a true “small-world network.” This published paper Is the brain really a small-world network? is intriguingly classified as Brain Mythology in the open access Brain Structure & Function journal. The paper presents that perhaps the small-world network is a good conceptual starting point but the actual architecture of the brain is more connected and more complex; even moreso at different scales.
So what is the use of these nodes and networks stuff in practical application?
Applying network thinking has practical application in nearly any domain. Networks are a simple model framework that describes a diverse set of systems: from economics, to biology, social science, language, and beyond. Intuition for networks seems universal in my travels as a data communicator. Aesthetically they provide a vast canvas to express creatively.
So I encourage you to ponder your world as a network of interactions. Try this network thinking framework to work through the next complex problem you face. The elegance and simplicity of a universal structure can be clarifying. By thinking in terms of nodes, relations, and interactions you may tap into a pathway for problem solving that is not only useful, but perhaps in coordination with a universal order of structure and organization.
Thanks for reading
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