NEW PERSPECTIVES ON SPONTANEOUS BRAIN ACTIVITY: DYNAMIC NETWORKS AND ENERGY MATTER

Spontaneous brain activity has received increasing attention as demonstrated by the exponential rise in the number of published papers on this topic over the last thirty years. Such “intrinsic” brain activity, generated in the absence of an explicit task, is frequently associated with resting-state or default-mode networks. The focus on characterizing spontaneous brain activity promises to shed new light on questions concerning the structural and functional architecture of the brain and how they are related to “mind”. However, many critical questions have yet to be addressed. In this review, we focus on a scarcely explored area, specifically the energetic requirements and constraints of spontaneous activity, taking into account both thermodynamical and informational perspectives. We argue that the “classical” definitions of spontaneous activity do not take into account an important feature, that is, the critical thermodynamic energetic differences between spontaneous and evoked brain activity. Spontaneous brain activity is associated with slower oscillations compared with evoked, task-related activity, hence it exhibits lower levels of enthalpy and “free-energy” (i.e. the energy that can be converted to do work), thus supporting noteworthy thermodynamic energetic differences between spontaneous and evoked brain activity. Increased spike frequency during evoked activity has a significant metabolic cost, consequently, brain functions traditionally associated with spontaneous activity, such as mind wandering, require less energy that other nervous activities. We also review recent empirical observations in neuroscience, in order to capture how spontaneous brain dynamics and mental function can be embedded in a non-linear dynamical framework, which considers nervous activity in terms of phase spaces, particle trajectories, random walks, attractors and/or paths at the edge of the chaos. This takes us from the thermodynamic free-energy, to the realm of “variational free-energy”, a theoretical construct pertaining to probability and information theory which allows explanation of unexplored features of spontaneous brain activity.