Noise and Function

Noise is widely understood to be something that interferes with a signal or process. Thus, it is generally thought to be destructive, obscuring signals and interfering with function. However, early in the 20th century, mechanical engineers found that mechanisms inducing additional vibration in mechanical systems could prevent sticking and hysteresis. This so-called “dither” noise was later introduced in an entirely different context at the advent of digital information transmission and recording in the early 1960s. Ironically, the addition of noise allows one to preserve information that would otherwise be lost when the signal or image is digitized. As we shall see, the benefits of added noise in these contexts are closely related to the phenomenon which has come to be known as stochastic resonance, the original version of which appealed to noise to explain how small periodic fluctuations in the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit might be amplified in such a way as to bring about the observed periodic transitions in climate from ice age to temperate age and back. These noise-induced transitions have since been invoked to explain a wide array of biological phenomena, including the foraging and tracking behavior of ants. Many biological phenomena, from foraging to gene expression, are noisy, involving an element of randomness. In this paper, we illustrate the general principles behind dithering and stochastic resonance using examples from image processing, and then show how the constructive use of noise can carry over to systems found in nature.


Noise and Function
Steven Weinstein, Theodore P. Pavlic


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