In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. The effect was coined by Edward Lorenz who found that the tiniest changes in a weather prediction model had enourmous efffects on the long-term predictions of the weather. In a sense, a butterfly could clap his wings and this could result in a tornado on the other side of the world. And if you look at this animation below. You can see that the “weather” travels around the world.
The butterfly effect sounds beautiful. And it is beautiful. Because it has many implications. You can think of many more area’s than just the weather. You can think about anything. What would happen if Hitler crossed the road one time with paying too little attention? If the meteor 65 million years ago just missed our earth? If the big bang was just a few degrees colder? These things drastically alter our future. But you can also think of the butterfly within you. The things you do today, will drastically change your future. If you stand up, undress, and run the streets yelling and attacking a cop with a knife, your future looks drastically different. And with today’s trending video’s your future might depend on some random, very, very small event. Just think about the 9GAG-memes where one person coincidentally looks a little weird or pretty and instantly becomes famous worldwide.
The diffusion of the butterfly effect
With the butterfly effect it seems like one thing causes the other and these effects accumulate. However, I believe that one event can have effects that diffuse over other (seemingly independent) events. I have a small example to illustrate this. A few months ago I was dueling during a football match and hit my little finger on someone’s pelvis. That guy didn’t notice it. It hurt me, but I could go on with playing football. However, my hand got really thick. I went to the hospital, took a picture and concluded that I broke my hand. Then, my hand needed to go in a casket for 4-6 weeks. And I can’t use it. I went to the doctor and they don’t really care about the effect of a casket. They just wanted it to heal properly, as I do too. A broken hand isn’t such a big deal. I only can’t use my hand for a few weeks. However, the broken hand had many large effects on me. Let’s sum it up a little. In the first week I’ve had a couple of effects. Firstly, I couldn’t write or use my computer with my right hand. I needed to spend time on searching an alternative, but nothing worked that well. This had an impact on my job performance and therefore it induces stress and exhaustion. Secondly, I couldn’t sleep that well at night because of the positioning of my arm. As a result, I didn’t recover that well. Thirdly, it directly affected my social life; I couldn’t exercise because it’s too dangerous, and I couldn’t hug my girlfriend like I wanted to. Overall, there where many effects in many aspects of my life. The effects diffused across my identity.
Measuring the butterfly effect
So a small event like breaking my finger during a duel didn’t only have a large effect on the functioning of my hand. The effect of the event diffused over several events in my life. Together, these effects accumulated, impacting my overall functioning. Because of this diffusion, it becomes almost impossible to measure the effects of a broken hand. If you would ask a doctor to measure the effects of a broken hand he will probably look at my hand function, and a psychologist will look at my psychological functioning. But the effects should be taken together. Nevertheless, I only saw a doctor during that period, who tested how hard I could push his hand. So it becomes quite impossible the measure the effects because the effects are so large, and you don’t know where the effects will occur because of its diffusion. But there is more that makes the butterfly hard to observe.
We never observe the butterfly effect
Although the butterfly is omnipresent in our lives, every day, every second, we hardly ever see it. That is because the butterfly effect is just an occurrence in reality. Everything we do can have a large effect on the future, but we only have one future. So we have nothing to compare our current reality to. We have no clue how life would be different when we didn’t grew thumbs a few thousand years ago. It probably would be different, but we have no clue how different. So when it comes to predicting the future, this becomes quite hard to do. We never know when someone has a brilliant idea that fundamentally changes our infrastructure, how we communicate, or how we think.
But why isn’t everything changing insanely?
If you believe that the butterfly effect is always there. You could think that the future will be drastically different each time. But it seems like that we are doing quite the same thing every day. I have been working for the past two years without changing that much. It almost seems that the butterfly effect isn’t that much present? Next to the fact that there is only one reality. There is a second thing that could explain this. This might be the event that everything is searching for a certain stability, an equilibrium. Once something weird occurs due to a small event, (like me breaking my finger), I can compensate. Because I could work less on my computer, I tried several alternatives that increased my productivity to compensate my loss. You have to go along with all the large changes in your environment to really see the butterfly effect occurring. Usually we compensate to prevent sudden events around us. We can’t handle too much change, so we try to find the familiar things that fit with our old patterns. Aka being conservative keeps us here where we are.