Emergence of local irreversibility in complex interacting systems

Christopher W. Lynn, Caroline M. Holmes, William Bialek, David J. Schwab

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Living systems are fundamentally irreversible, breaking detailed balance and establishing an arrow of time. But how does the evident arrow of time for a whole system arise from the interactions among its multiple elements? We show that the local evidence for the arrow of time, which is the entropy production for thermodynamic systems, can be decomposed. First, it can be split into two components: an independent term reflecting the dynamics of individual elements and an interaction term driven by the dependencies among elements. Adapting tools from nonequilibrium physics, we further decompose the interaction term into contributions from pairs of elements, triplets, and higher-order terms. We illustrate our methods on models of cellular sensing and logical computations, as well as on patterns of neural activity in the retina as it responds to visual inputs. We find that neural activity can define the arrow of time even when the visual inputs do not, and that the dominant contribution to this breaking of detailed balance comes from interactions among pairs of neurons.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number034102
JournalPhysical Review E
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Statistical and Nonlinear Physics
  • Statistics and Probability


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