Lynn, Christopher W.; Eli J. Corn Blath; Lia Papadopoulos; Maxwell A. Bertolero and Danielle S. Bassett

Living systems break detailed balance at small scales, consuming energy and producing entropy in the environment to perform molecular and cellular functions. However, it remains unclear how broken detailed balance manifests at macroscopic scales and how such dynamics support higher-order biological functions. Here we present a framework to quantify broken detailed balance by measuring entropy production in macroscopic systems. We apply our method to the human brain, an organ whose immense metabolic consumption drives a diverse range of cognitive functions. Using whole-brain imaging data, we demonstrate that the brain nearly obeys detailed balance when at rest, but strongly breaks detailed balance when performing physically and cognitively demanding tasks. Using a dynamic Ising model, we show that these large-scale violations of detailed balance can emerge from fine-scale asymmetries in the interactions between elements, a known feature of neural systems. Together, these results suggest that violations of detailed balance are vital for cognition and provide a general tool for quantifying entropy production in macroscopic systems.