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Chris Bonnell

December 14, 2011

Abstract

The Kuramoto model for systems of oscillators, a ﬁrst-order system

of diﬀerential equations used to study systems of phase oscillators, is

a useful tool for the study of synchronization. This model occupies an

essential niche between triviality and reality, being complex enough to

have interesting features and yet admitting solution. In this paper we

discuss the formulation of the model for a ﬁnite and inﬁnite number

of oscillators, its applications to physics and neuroscience, and some

recent mathematical developments.

1 Introduction

1.1 Synchronization

The phenomenon of synchronization pervades everyday experience. Some ex-

amples are hardly surprising, like the synchronization of the front and back

wheels of a bicycle, as they are highly coupled. Others, like the momen-

tary synchronization of turn signals in traﬃc, which aren’t really coupled

at all, don’t really merit investigation. There are examples between these

extremes, however, which are of surprising complexity and beauty. These

examples include the synchronization of ﬁreﬂies, to circadian rhythms ob-

served in animals, and even the subtle synchronization of the heartbeat to

music. [3][7] The fundamental feature of all of these examples is the presence

of several objects which can each said to be oscillating, and the phenomenon

of some of the objects inﬂuencing the oscillations of others. The problem

with a naive viewpoint on this subject is that every situation could poten-

tially merit its own unique description, which would entail a unique analysis

1

[4]. While this is productive, it misses the larger point, focusing on diﬀer-

ences rather than similarities, and it does not strive to address the seeming

universality of the phenomenon. In light of this, it is promising to study a

model which exhibits all the basic features of a system in sync, keeps enough

ﬂexibility to describe a wide range of situations, and yet is still tractable

from an analytical perspective.

1.2 A Model

One model which strikes a compelling balance of generality and solvability

was proposed by Kuramoto in 1975, and has the following form:

˙

θ

i

= ω

i

+

N

j=1

K

ij

f(θ

j

−θ

i

) i = 1...N

To explain the notation a little, each oscillator θ

i

has a preferred frequency

ω

i

, but is biased away from this by its interaction with other oscillators.

This interaction f is periodic in the diﬀerence of the phases of the oscillators

concerned, and is zero if the phases are identical. This leads one to believe

that f is probably a polynomial or power series in terms of sin(θ

j

−θ

i

) which

it can be, but for the sake of simplicity it’s typically taken to be only the

lowest order such term.[3][6]

2 Methods

In considering a large number of oscillators, it is wise to change the coupling

somewhat. First, all of the weights are taken to be equal. This has two

eﬀects, one is that the graph of interactions of the oscillators is complete

(in the sense of graphs), the second is that

K

N

can be used to regulate the

strength of coupling in the limit as N →∞. The second modiﬁcation is that

the oscillators should not interact with each other oscillator individually,

but collectively through their average phase Ψ(t). The resulting diﬀerential

equation is

˙

θ

i

= ω

i

+

K

N

sin(Ψ−θ

i

) i = 1...N

Using this notation, it’s also possible to deﬁne an order parameter for the

system. This parameter, r, ranges from 0 to 1 and measures the degree to

2

which the system is synchronized. It is deﬁned as

re

iΨ

=

1

N

N

i=1

e

iθ

i

As it happens, it’s possible to simulate a ﬁnite number of these oscillators

(even a large number by some accounts), but analysis becomes progressively

more challenging. The approach taken with the Kuramoto oscillator is the

usual one, that of taking the limit N → ∞ with

K

N

= C, a constant. If we

do this, we can deﬁne the continuum analogue of the order parameter above,

and discuss the oscillator behavior as a ﬁeld quantity. This does involve a

transition in notation and technique, switching to distribution functions, and

solutions to Fokker-Planck equations as primary investigatory techniques.[6]

In this setup, we can also discuss bulk properties of a system of oscillators

in terms of their phases as given by the order parameter. As the system is

set up to be very general, one would expect that the correct choices of the

coupling parameters could give rise to many kinds of behavior, and indeed

there are examples where the system can undergo transitions of phase of both

the discontinuous (ﬁrst-order) and continuous (second-order) types. [3] As a

side-note, this order parameter has its advantages and disadvantages. It does

determine the amount of order in some sense. However, if the system were

(for example) to exhibit two populations with diﬀerent phases, say θ

1

= −θ

2

,

you could cook up a situation wherein the system can be split into halves,

each of which is perfectly synchronized, but the overall synchronization is 0.

[3]. It should also be noted that the question of stability is an extremely hard

one to answer, and the stability of distributions of oscillators wasn’t proven

for some time. Beyond just this question, in a case with an inﬁnite number

of oscillators, the exact distribution of initial conditions matters a great deal.

If there are no peaks, or one peak in the distribution (the simplest possible

examples), the analysis is still extremely technical. [6]

3 Applications

3.1 Chemistry

The Kuramoto model is applicable to many problems in certain branches of

science. Several of these will be discussed below. While these are instruc-

tive, none are as immediately fascinating (or visible) as that of the Belusov-

3

Zhabotinski reaction. This oscillating chemical reaction can be modeled with

2 linked oscillators which are perturbed by a random spatial imperfection.

In addition to the ﬁgure, the reader may ﬁnd that several pleasing examples

are readily viewable on youtube.

Figure 1: Development and propagation of spiral waves. Taken from

Zhabotinsky and Zaikin, 1971

3.2 Neuroscience

Neuroscience can be done mathematically with several kinds of models. For

some processes, the Kuramoto model is appropriate. These processes in-

clude those taking place in certain areas of the visual cortex. This type of

application introduces many technical obstacles to mean-ﬁeld and simulation

calculation both, as the connection is no longer all-to-all. Instead, the overall

network is sparsely connected, but locally it can be very densely connected.

The response of the network can, in this case, be measured in terms of the

number of oscillators having a speciﬁc phase at or about a speciﬁc time. [3]

Aside from actively modeling the brain, it’s possible to model diﬀerent

methods by which neurons could hypothetically learn information. One such

example is Hebbian learning, is taken to model learning and memory for-

mation in the Hippocampus. This is accomplished by taking a system of

4

Figure 2: Oscillators in this simulation form two synchronized clusters in

densely populated bands, while the uncoupled oscillators remain predomi-

nantly in the envelope in the middle. Taken from [5]

coupled phase oscillators, considering them to ﬁre if their phase crosses a

certain point, and reinforcing or diminishing the connections between neu-

rons if they ﬁre close to each other (diminishing would happen in considering

directed connectivity, and reducing the value of a connection of the connec-

tion is from a to b and b ﬁres before a does). The amount of change is

loosely a “learning rate” and varying this rate can cause diﬀerent structures

of connectivity to emerge from a network. This example, as inﬂuenced by

the learning rate, is subject to phases in much the same way as the original

Kuramoto system.[5]

3.3 Physics

The Kuramoto oscillator model has also found many applications in physics,

some of the most notable ones being the propagation of charge-density waves

in quasi-one-dimensional metals and semiconductors. More speciﬁcally, the

depinning transition can be studied by the addition of a term to the oscilla-

tor model which introduces a random pinning angle α, and considering the

5

reaction to an applied electric ﬁeld E, these have the form:

˙

θ

i

= E −hsin(θ

i

−α

i

) +

N

j=1

K

ij

f(θ

j

−θ

i

) i = 1...N

Another prominent application concerns Josephson junctions, which can

be used as voltage-to-frequency transducers. To achieve a large output power,

the junctions can be combined, just so long as they are synchronized properly.

In fact, junctions connected in series exhibit the all-to-all coupling typical

of the original model. The same is also true of lasers, which have to be

phase-synchronized with one another in order to maximize power output.[3]

4 Recent Developments

There are, of course, more technical questions to be asked. First of all, if a

system has a synchronized state, and is started out of that state, how long

does it take to get there? If the system is perturbed by noise, is there still

synchronization on average?

In answer to the ﬁrst question, it depends. For certain ranges of coupling

constants, synchronization is never achieved (this is expected, especially for

very small coupling). There is a critical value of the coupling constant,

which can be deﬁned up to some technical points, after which synchronization

happens. Furthermore, if the oscillators are going to synchronize, the will do

so exponentially quickly. [1]

In answer to the latter question, if a system of oscillators manages to

synchronize and is subject to noise below a certain threshold, the system

spends the vast majority of its time near the synchronized state. However, the

system will occasionally undergo a large deviation, wherein one or more of the

oscillators slips, and the system then resettles into a new stable state. This

transit time between stable states is extremely short, and under appropriate

assumptions, does not increase if the number of oscillators is increased.[2]

5 Concluding Remarks

Synchronization is a growing area of research–it will likely remain popular

for some time as this phenomenon so compelling and readily observable in

the world. To study this, the Kuramoto model model has many advantages;

6

Figure 3: A simulation of transitions of a stochastic Kuramoto system be-

tween stable states (the exact stable states are given by the small circles).

Taken from [2]

Figure 4: A simulation of 5 oscillators illustrating the relative times spent in

stable conﬁgurations and transitioning between them. Taken from [2]

it is used throughout many ﬁelds because of it’s tractability, and ease of

simulation. It remains an active area of mathematical research, harboring

unanswered questions including the eﬀects of various network topologies on

7

synchronization and stability. And, in the case with an inﬁnite number of

oscillators, the question of the behavior of systems with multimodal distri-

butions is not yet solved completely.

References

[1] N. Chopra and M.W. Spong. On Synchronization of Kuramoto Oscilla-

tors. Proceedings of the 44th IEEE Conference on Decision and Control,

(1):3916–3922, 2005.

[2] L. DeVille. Transitions amongst synchronous solutions for the stochastic

Kuramoto model. Nonlinearity, pages 1–20, 2011 (submitted).

[3] Acebr´on et al. The Kuramoto model: A simple paradigm for synchro-

nization phenomena. Reviews of Modern Physics, 77(1):137–185, April

2005.

[4] Balanov et al. Synchronization: From Simple to Complex. Springer-

Verlag, 2009.

[5] Ritwik K Niyogi and L Q English. Learning-rate dependent clustering

and self-development in a network of coupled phase oscillators. Phys.

Rev. E, 80(066213):1–7, 2009.

[6] S Strogatz. From Kuramoto to Crawford: exploring the onset of syn-

chronization in populations of coupled oscillators. Physica D: Nonlinear

Phenomena, 143(1-4):1–20, September 2000.

[7] S Strogatz. SYNC: How Order Emerges from Chaos in the Universe,

Nature, and Daily Life. Hyperion, 2003.

8

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