For example, there's a massive group of fish that all move as one. What would you call the whole group of fish? Or as a better example, a brain is made of trillions of neurons working in concert.

What's a word or phrase to describe both the fish community and the brain?

Sample sentence: The school of fish acted as a/an ___ of the individual fish.

  • The fish community is called a shoal.
    – WS2
    Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 8:31
  • See my answer. Neurons work in tandem
    – NVZ
    Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 9:04
  • 1
    A 'living organism', used literally or metaphorically. Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 9:14
  • 1
    Are you talking about individuals of the same kind, or is the concept of "working together" more important than their nature? Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 10:12
  • 1
    @LaurentDuval I guess I'm thinking of a whole made up of similar individuals. But I'm really open to any kind of suggestions.
    – Jeff Caros
    Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 18:24

6 Answers 6


The are both examples of self-organizing systems or of self-organization.

See wikpedia: self-organization

Another term used is swarm intelligence.

See wikipedia: swarm intelligence

  • Compensating the downvote: swarm intelligence (SI) seems very appropriate to me "Examples in natural systems of SI include ant colonies, bird flocking, animal herding, bacterial growth, fish schooling and microbial intelligence." Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 10:16

I might call them a collective:

collective n

1:  a collective body :  group

2:  a cooperative unit or organization; specifically : collective farm

That may imply some individual agency and intention to contribute to the whole, which wouldn't be quite right for fish or neurons. A more general term would be a system:

system n

: a group of related parts that move or work together

: a body of a person or animal thought of as an entire group of parts that work together

: a group of organs that work together to perform an important function of the body

... and the behavior of the whole an emergent property:

emergent property n

a property which a collection or complex system has, but which the individual members do not have

  • I am downvoting this one because in usages of which I am aware a 'collective' would involve some kind of shared, willing and definable motivation towards some kind of objective or ideal. OP seems to be asking much more about operational cohesiveness. Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 13:26
  • @CaptainCranium I agree. You'll note that I addressed that concern and provided an alternative.
    – Jacktose
    Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 13:30
  • I know. I've been wrestling with this one as well, and the best I can do is 'system'. My other point in the downvote, though, is concerned with the point and function of SE. I am fairly new here, and getting used to the idea that a good Answer generally involves a single, supported response to a Question. I am told that there is nothing wrong with offering multiple Answers, but apparently composite, listy answers are inappropriate for the present model. Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 13:41
  • I'm upvoting this because of The Borg Collective memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Borg_Collective
    – ab2
    Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 20:45

A metaphor in living organism is siphonophores (an example of which is the Indo-Pacific Portuguese Man-of-War (Physalia utriculus), or blue bottle):

a class of marine animals belonging to the phylum Cnidaria. Although a siphonophore appears to be a single organism, each specimen is actually a colony composed of many individual animals called zooids, all of which have a specific role for survival.

So each of siphonophore or zooid is a word that describes many individuals working together to form a whole (yet maybe not THE one the OP is looking for).

Or maybe simply a network (an interconnected system of things or people)?

  • I very nearly downvoted for the irrelevant 'siphonophores' (interesting as the analogy is). I'm not even going to Google for 'the brain is a siphonophore' or 'a siphonophore of fish'. But the 'network' redeemed this. Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 15:48
  • @Edwin Ashworth This is a risk I take when I answer to "what is A word for", instead of answering "what is THE word for" Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 17:32

How about macrocosm, as in:

  • "The school of fish acted as a macrocosm of the individual fish."
  • "The brain acts as a macrocosm for trillions of neurons working in concert." or "Trillions of neurons work in concert, serving as a microcosm of the larger brain".

From Wikipedia:

Macrocosm and microcosm refers to a vision of cosmos where the part (microcosm) reflects the whole (macrocosm) and vice versa...a macrocosm is a social body made of smaller compounds."


I like the self-organizing system answer.

As a metaphor I would also suggest a superorganism also spelt supraorganism.

The school of fish acts as a superorganism comprised of the individual fish.

The brain is a supraorganism comprising trillions of neurons working in concert.

From the Wikipedia article:

The term was coined in 1789 by James Hutton, the "father of geology", to refer to Earth in the context of geophysiology.

Some scientists have suggested that individual human beings can be thought of as "superorganisms"; as a typical human digestive system contains 1013 to 1014 microorganisms whose collective genome, the microbiome studied by the Human Microbiome Project, contains at least 100 times as many genes as the human genome itself.


I'd suggest, school

: a large number of fish or aquatic animals of one kind swimming together


: a large group of aquatic animals, especially fish, swimming together; a shoal.

[Middle English scole, from Middle Dutch; see skel-1 in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]


The neural pool contains many schools of neurons. Cast your net on the right side of the brain.

Expand Your Mind, Improve your Brain - Chapter 24

Alternately, you might consider tank, as in fish tank and think tank

think tank

: an organization that consists of a group of people who think of new ideas on a particular subject or who give advice about what should be done


...and bank

A mound, pile, or ridge; a group or series of objects; an amount or stock of money; a batch of paper money.

Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Terms

A neural network is a bank of neurons operating in parallel and interacting together to learn autonomously [...]

  • I don't think a school describes the brain. Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 8:59
  • Who has ever used 'tank surgery'? Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 9:30

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