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Cambridge Centre for Physical Biology


Iain Couzin

Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, Department of Collective Behaviour, Konstanz, Germany

German Research Foundation Cluster of Excellence “Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour”, University of Konstanz, Germany


The Geometry of Decision-Making

(for video scroll down)


14 April | 2 pm | Sainsbury Lab (Auditorium) - Bateman Street, Cambridge, CB2 1LR

(Check out Iain's research video about this topic - here)



A central challenge for animals when alone, or when grouping with others, is deciding where to go. Running, swimming, or flying through the world, animals are constantly making decisions while on the move—decisions that allow them to choose where to eat, where to hide, and with whom to associate. Despite this most studies have considered only on the outcome of, and time taken to make, decisions. Motion is, however, crucial in terms of how space is represented by organisms during spatial decision-making. Employing a range of new technologies, including automated tracking, computational reconstruction of sensory information, and immersive ‘holographic’ virtual reality (VR) experiments with fruit flies, locusts and zebrafish (representing aerial, terrestrial and aquatic locomotion, respectively), I will demonstrate that this time-varying representation results in the emergence of new and fundamental geometric principles that considerably impact decision-making. Specifically, we find that the brain spontaneously reduces multi-choice decisions into a series of abrupt (‘critical’) binary decisions in space-time, a process that repeats until only one option—the one ultimately selected by the individual—remains. Due to the nature of these transitions (and the corresponding increase in ‘susceptibility’) even noisy brains are extremely sensitive to very small differences between remaining options (e.g., a very small difference in neuronal activity being in “favor” of one option) near these critical points in space-time. This mechanism facilitates highly effective decision-making, and is shown to be robust both to the number of options available, and to context, such as whether options are static (e.g. refuges) or mobile (e.g. other animals). In addition, we find evidence that the same geometric principles of decision-making occur across scales of biological organisation, from neural dynamics to animal collectives, suggesting they are fundamental features of spatiotemporal computation.



Iain Couzin is Director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and Speaker of the Excellence Cluster “Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour” at the University of Konstanz, Konstanz, Germany. Previously he was an Assistant- and then Full-Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University, and prior to that a Royal Society University Research Fellow in the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, and a Junior Research Fellow in the Sciences at Balliol College, Oxford. His work aims to reveal the fundamental principles that underlie evolved collective behavior, and consequently his research includes the study of a wide range of biological systems, from neural collectives to insect swarms, fish schools and primate groups. In recognition of his research he has been recipient of the Searle Scholar Award in 2008, top 5 most cited papers of the decade in animal behavior research 1999-2010, the Mohammed Dahleh Award in 2009, Popular Science’s "Brilliant 10” Award in 2010, National Geographic Emerging Explorer Award in 2012, the Scientific Medal of the Zoological Society of London in 2013, a Web of Science Global Highly Cited Researcher since 2018, the Lagrange Prize in 2019, and the Leibniz Prize, Germany’s highest research honour, in 2022.



Talk Recording