A positive feedback loop is a system where one variable increases the quality of another variable which in turn increases the quantity/occurrence of the first variable. Positive feedback loops are processes that occur within feedback loops in general, and their conceptual opposite is a negative feedback loop.
The mathematical definition of a positive feedback loop is defined as a phenomenon where a positive gain exists within a loop of cause and effect. Positive feedback systems like these are inherently unstable systems that will usually end with some sort of divergence from the system’s normal equilibrium, possibly with chaotic behavior or exponential growth.
Positive Feedback Loops Vs Negative Feedback Loops
As a practical example of a positive feedback loop, consider the process of blood clotting, where the arrival of platelets at a site releases clotting factors that cause more platelets to arrive at the injury site. Also consider the process of childbirth, where the stretching of the walls of the uterus leads to contractions, and the contractions further stretch the uterine walls in a cycle that continues until the birthing process is over. Notice that in both instances, the positive feedback involves the response of one variable (release of clotting factors, stretching of the uterus) that reinforces or amplifies the detected change (platelet arrival, contractions).
Contrast this with negative feedback loops, which are responses that reverse the detected change. The function of negative feedback loops is often to reduce undesirable effects. An example of a negative feedback loop is the thermoregulation of the body, like sweating when you are too hot. The sweat reduces body temperature and will continue until you are back to acceptable body temperature.
The Relationship Between Homeostasis And Feedback Loops
In biology, the concept of feedback loops is applied alongside the concept of homeostasis, which is the use of dynamic physiological processes by the cells of an organism to maintain an internal environment suitable for normal function and the continued existence of that organism. The goal of homeostasis is to keep certain important internal variables like blood pressure and body temperature within a range of acceptable values.
Regarding feedback loops, as they are related to homeostasis, the function of a feedback loop is to help the body maintain homeostasis. Feedback loops are defined as systems that adjust levels of the specific variable whenever identifiable receptors, effectors, methods of communication, and control centers are present. It would be helpful to define these terms:
- Variables are any number of parameters or constraints that have levels monitored or affected by the body’s feedback system.
- Receptors are responsible for detecting changes in the level of the different variables.
- Control centers, also known as integrators, are systems in the body that are responsible for comparing the detected levels of the variable to the target levels of the variable and generating a response if the measurements and targets are different.
- Effectors are devices that carry out the changes necessary to adjust levels of the variable and restore homeostasis. Some method of communicating between the various systems and subsystems involved in the feedback loop is also necessary so that the system knows when to begin and end the various parts of the loop.
An example of an organism’s attempts at maintaining homeostasis is, as described above, thermoregulation. When it is too cold out, your body shivers and mammals get goosebumps which increases the distance of blood to the exterior of the skin, decreasing heat loss. Another example of the body’s attempt to maintain homeostasis is during physical activity, where when the body is stressed for long periods of time it begins to sweat, which causes it to lose water and salt. The low level of water in the body creates the release of hormones responsible for the feeling of thirst. Many medical conditions result from a failure of the body to maintain some type of homeostasis.
A Closer Look At Positive Feedback Loops
Positive feedback loops are systems where a change in one aspect of the system will cause more changes in that aspect of the system. Because a change in the level of a variable causes responses that further increase the level of that variable, a positive feedback loop can grow quickly and unstable-y, leading to a runaway condition. Positive feedback loops can often be harmful because of this tendency to become unstably, though in some cases, such as the aforementioned clotting of blood, they can be beneficial. In the case of blood clotting, an enzyme called thrombin acts activates proteins that cause the cascading effect, but there are also other aspects of the blood clotting system that keep it in check and don’t allow levels of thrombin to increase beyond acceptable levels.
“Childbirth is more admirable than conquest, more amazing than self-defense, and as courageous as either one.” — Gloria Steinem
Let’s look at one more example of positive feedback loops found within the body. After a child is born, the mother produces milk for her offspring, a process known as lactation. During the course of the pregnancy levels of the hormone known as prolactin increase, and prolactin is typically responsible for stimulating the production of milk. Yet during the course of the pregnancy, levels of progesterone inhibit the production of milk. After the birth of the child levels of progesterone drop and as the child drinks milk the release of further prolactin is promoted, which thereby leads to the production of more milk and more prolactin. This positive feedback loop is necessary to make sure the child has enough milk during the time it nurses. When the baby begins to wean off of milk, the levels of prolactin in the mother’s body return to their normal levels.
Examples Of Positive Feedback Loops Outside Of The Body
An example of a positive feedback loop in nature outside of the body is drought. Droughts become more intense due to a positive feedback loop. When there isn’t enough rain, plants die off, which limits how much water vapor is added to the air from the planet’s surface. Dry dust is also added to the atmosphere which ends up absorbing water and making the air even dryer. The lower amount of water vapor in the air means that days get hotter and drier, which decreases the chance that clouds will form, which decreases the chance that it will rain – exacerbating the drought.
About Daniel Nelson PRO INVESTOR
Daniel obtained his BS and is pursuing a Master's degree in the science of Human-Computer Interaction. He hopes to work on projects which bridge the sciences and humanities. His background in education and training is diverse including education in computer science, communication theory, psychology, and philosophy. He aims to create content that educates, persuades, entertains and inspires.
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Questions & Answers (4)
Have a question? Our panel of experts willanswer your queries.Post your question
give me an analogy or easier example of positive feedback loops OTHER than childbirth
I need an analogy for positive feedback loops or easier example
What does the drought example have to do with homeostasis? Or does it help with homeostasis?
Thermoregulation is a negative feedback loop.
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Positive Feedback Loops Vs Negative Feedback Loops
As a practical example of a positive feedback loop, consider the process of blood clotting, where the arrival of platelets at a site releases clotting factors that cause more platelets to arrive at the injury site.
In climate change, a feedback loop is something that speeds up or slows down a warming trend. A positive feedback accelerates a temperature rise, whereas a negative feedback slows it down.What is a positive feedback loop in biology example? ›
positive feedback loops, in which a change in a given direction causes additional change in the same direction. For example, an increase in the concentration of a substance causes feedback that produces continued increases in concentration.Which is the best example of a positive feedback loop? ›
The process of labor and childbirth is perhaps the most-cited example of positive feedback. In childbirth, when the fetus's head presses up against the cervix, it stimulates nerves that tell the brain to stimulate the pituitary gland, which then produces oxytocin. Oxytocin causes the uterus to contract.What is an example of positive feedback in science? ›
Some examples of positive feedback are contractions in child birth and the ripening of fruit; negative feedback examples include the regulation of blood glucose levels and osmoregulation.What is Earth's biggest positive feedback? ›
As the atmosphere warms and sea ice melts, the darker ocean absorbs more heat, causes more ice to melt, and makes Earth warmer overall. The ice-albedo feedback is a very strong positive feedback.
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3 – Positive Feedback Loop: Normal childbirth is driven by a positive feedback loop. A positive feedback loop results in a change in the body's status, rather than a return to homeostasis. The first contractions of labor (the stimulus) push the baby toward the cervix (the lowest part of the uterus).