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Social behaviour

Mexican waves in an excitable medium

The stimulation of this concerted motion among expectant spectators is explained.


The Mexican wave, or La Ola, which rose to fame during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, surges through the rows of spectators in a stadium as those in one section leap to their feet with their arms up, and then sit down again as the next section rises to repeat the motion. To interpret and quantify this collective human behaviour, we have used a variant of models that were originally developed to describe excitable media such as cardiac tissue. Modelling the reaction of the crowd to attempts to trigger the wave reveals how this phenomenon is stimulated, and may prove useful in controlling events that involve groups of excited people.

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Figure 1: The Mexican wave, or La Ola, sweeping through a crowd of spectators.
Figure 2: A model of the Mexican wave.

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Farkas, I., Helbing, D. & Vicsek, T. Mexican waves in an excitable medium. Nature 419, 131–132 (2002).

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