What is the “dying ReLU” problem in neural networks?

Question description:

“Unfortunately, ReLU units can be fragile during training and can “die”. For example, a large gradient flowing through a ReLU neuron could cause the weights to update in such a way that the neuron will never activate on any datapoint again. If this happens, then the gradient flowing through the unit will forever be zero from that point on. That is, the ReLU units can irreversibly die during training since they can get knocked off the data manifold. For example, you may find that as much as 40% of your network can be “dead” (i.e. neurons that never activate across the entire training dataset) if the learning rate is set too high. With a proper setting of the learning rate this is less frequently an issue.”

What does dying of neurons here mean?

Could you please provide an intuitive explanation in simpler terms.


A “dead” ReLU always outputs the same value (zero as it happens, but that is not important) for any input. Probably this is arrived at by learning a large negative bias term for its weights.

In turn, that means that it takes no role in discriminating between inputs. For classification, you could visualize this as a decision plane outside of all possible input data.

Once a ReLU ends up in this state, it is unlikely to recover, because the function gradient at 0 is also 0, so gradient descent learning will not alter the weights. “Leaky” ReLUs with a small positive gradient for negative inputs (y=0.01x when x < 0 say) is one attempt to address this issue and give a chance to recover.

The sigmoid and tanh neurons can suffer from similar problems as their values saturate, but there is always at least a small gradient allowing them to recover in the long term.

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