The Calamity Sum: Predicting Seizures in the Brain and Economy

An equation that can reliably predict crashes in financial markets and some types of epileptic seizures has been identified in a joint-study by Sussex University in the UK, and Charles Sturt University, Australia.

‘Dynamical systems’ – systems featuring complex interactions between large groups of interacting elements seen in, for example, economic structures and processes in the brain, were analysed to pinpoint transition phases – the moment before a system ‘crashes.’

Published in Physical Review Letters, the study shows how information dynamics could be used as a predictive tool. By accurately pinpointing the moment of disorder in a system, researchers believe that financial market crashes, some forms of epilepsy, disorder in climate systems and even malfunction in the human immune system could be potentially prevented.

Using computer simulations and mathematics, researchers showed how a measure of information flow reaches a peak known as a ‘phase transition’ just before a system system moves from a state of order to disorder and ‘crashes.’

Phase transitions are common in many systems and preceding ‘crashes’ are therefore highly significant Previously, methods of predicting such phase transitions have failed, peaking at the point of transition and thereby making prediction impossible.

Dr Lionel Barnett, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science comments on the recent discovery:

The key insight in the paper is that the dynamics of complex systems – like the brain and the economy – depend on how their elements causally influence each other; in other words, how information flows between them. And that this information flow needs to be measured for the system as a whole, and not just locally between its various parts.”

To measure this information flow requires a way to mathematically represent the extent to which parts of a complex system are simultaneously separated and pulled together. A way of characterizing the phenomenon of phase transitions has puzzled the scientific community for decades.

In 1925 Ernst Ising solved the problem to represent a model of magnetism for his doctoral thesis. In the more recent discovery, the research team of Sussex and Charles Sturt University demonstrated for the first time that their measure did what many have tried to do since Ising’s model – reliably predicts phase transitions in standard systems. 

Professor Anil Seth, Co-Director of the Sackler Centre, comments on the scope of the discovery:

The implications of the work are far-reaching. If the results generalise to other real-world systems, we might have ways of predicting calamitous events before they happen, which would open the possibility for intervention to prevent the transition from occurring.”

He adds: “For example, the ability to predict the imminent onset of an epileptic seizure could allow a rapid medical intervention (perhaps via brain stimulation) which would change the course of the dynamics and prevent the seizure.  And if similar principles apply to financial markets, climate systems, and even immune systems, similar interventions might be possible. Further research is needed to explore these exciting possibilities.”


Sussex University Press Release: Scientists identify a mathematical ‘crystal ball’ that may predict calamities

Physical Review Lettters: Information Flow in a Kinetic Ising Model Peaks in the Disordered Phase

Image credit: with thanks to Thomas Boulvin of RGB Free Stock


Prisoners’ Penfriends improves chance of rehabilitation, study shows


flickr photo by Muffet shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

A recent study of Prisoners’ Penfriends – a charitable scheme that runs a volunteer pen pal programme in 52 prisons – has shown that having a pen pal can contribute to prisoner wellbeing and increase the likelihood of successful rehabilitation.

Researchers Prof Jackie Hodgson and Juliet Horne from Warwick University analysed the impact of the scheme and found that the simple act of being written to and having someone to write back to provided a cheap yet effective method of maintaining moral.

In addition, pen pals could provide an early warning of a prisoner’s decline in mental health. Pen pal confidents became aware of the state of mind of their prison pen pal and were able to alert prison authorities to any increasing depression or risk of suicide.

Professor Jackie Hodgson, leading researcher, commented to Warwick Press:

“We found that something as simple as a pen pal relationship can lead to tangible benefits for prisoners. Given the recent rise in prison violence and suicides, increased prison overcrowding and the current resource pressures on the prison system, letter-writing seems an extremely valuable way to provide greater support for prisoners, based on genuine relationships of care and trust, at remarkably little cost.”

Typical pen pal

The study found that the typical prisoner was male, serving a long term sentences and before the pen pals scheme, had ‘little or no contact with anyone outside of prison’. The effect of having a pen pal helped to reduce their sense of isolation, provided a different focus from their daily routine in prison and also ‘raised their hopes for being outside of prison’.

The Prisoners’ Penfriends scheme matches volunteers with prisoners and delivers post via a PO box to ensure confidentiality. Volunteers are advised to use a fictitious name and exclude personal details such as address and family names to maintain anonymity when writing. Before being matched to a pen pal, volunteers must to agree to follow strict guidelines to ensure relationship boundaries are maintained. All ingoing and outgoing letters are read by prison staff.

The pen pal scheme however has proven to be a life changing relationship for many, with very little cost to implement. One prisoner wrote of his pen friend:

‘He is very helpful and caring and very understanding. He makes me feel like I can achieve things in life. It’s made me want to be a better man when released and achieve my dreams if possible.’

Figures and interesting stats

  • Nearly all prisoners said they intended to remain pen pals for the length of their sentence.
  • The longest pen pal relationship so far has been nine years.
  • The scheme has seen 16,000 letters being sent.

What volunteers say 
What prisoners say 

‘Imagining more than just a prisoner: the work of Prisoners’ Penfriends’.

For more information on the Prisoners’ Penfriends scheme and to sign up to be a volunteer pen pal visit or email directly.