Sigmoidal Nonlinearity

Understanding Sigmoidal Nonlinearity

Sigmoidal nonlinearity refers to the characteristic "S"-shaped curve of the sigmoid function, which is a type of mathematical function that maps any real-valued number into a small range, typically between 0 and 1. The term "sigmoid" itself comes from the Greek letter sigma (σ), due to the function's resemblance to the letter's shape. This nonlinearity is particularly important in the field of neural networks and machine learning, where it is used as an activation function.

What is a Sigmoid Function?

The sigmoid function, often denoted as σ(x), is a bounded, differentiable, real function that is defined for all real input values and has a non-negative derivative at each point. In its most common form, the logistic sigmoid function is given by the formula:

σ(x) = 1 / (1 + e-x)

where e is the base of the natural logarithm, and x is the input to the function.

Properties of the Sigmoid Function

The sigmoid function has several important properties that make it a good choice for an activation function in neural networks:

  • Output Range:

    The sigmoid function outputs values in the range (0, 1), which can be interpreted as probabilities. This is particularly useful in binary classification tasks where the output can represent the probability of belonging to a particular class.

  • Nonlinearity: The non-linear nature of the sigmoid function allows neural networks to learn complex patterns. Without nonlinearity, neural networks would not be able to model the intricate relationships in data.
  • Differentiability:

    The sigmoid function is smooth and differentiable, which means that we can find the slope of the sigmoid curve at any point. This is crucial for performing backpropagation in neural networks, where gradients are used to update the weights.

  • Saturation:

    At extreme values of the input (both positive and negative), the sigmoid function saturates, meaning its output is very close to 1 or 0, respectively. This can lead to gradients that are nearly zero, which can slow down or halt learning during backpropagation—a problem known as the vanishing gradient problem.

Role of Sigmoidal Nonlinearity in Neural Networks

In neural networks, activation functions like the sigmoid are used to introduce nonlinearity into the model. This allows the network to capture complex relationships between the input features and the output. Without such nonlinearity, a neural network with many layers would behave just like a single-layer network, as the layers would collapse into one another.

The sigmoid function was historically one of the first activation functions used in neural networks, especially in the output layer for binary classification problems. However, due to the vanishing gradient problem, its use in hidden layers has been largely superseded by other functions like the hyperbolic tangent (tanh) or the Rectified Linear Unit (ReLU).

Challenges with Sigmoidal Nonlinearity

While sigmoidal nonlinearity has been instrumental in the development of neural networks, it comes with its own set of challenges:

  • Vanishing Gradient Problem: The function saturates at both tails (for large positive or negative input values), which leads to small gradients. During backpropagation, this can result in minimal changes to the weights, effectively stopping the network from learning further.
  • Not Zero-Centered: The output of the sigmoid function is not centered around zero, which can lead to inefficient gradient updates during weight optimization.
  • Computational Expense: The exponential operation in the sigmoid function is more computationally expensive compared to other activation functions like ReLU.

Alternatives to Sigmoidal Nonlinearity

Due to the limitations of the sigmoid function, other activation functions have been proposed and are now more commonly used in neural networks:

  • Hyperbolic Tangent (tanh): Similar to the sigmoid but outputs values in the range (-1, 1), making it zero-centered.
  • Rectified Linear Unit (ReLU): A piecewise linear function that outputs the input directly if it is positive, otherwise, it outputs zero. It has become the default activation function for many types of neural networks due to its simplicity and efficiency.


Sigmoidal nonlinearity has played a fundamental role in the development of neural networks and machine learning. Despite its limitations and the advent of newer activation functions, the sigmoid function remains an important tool, especially in the output layer of binary classifiers. Its historical significance and the intuitive way it captures the probability make it a staple concept for anyone delving into the world of artificial intelligence and neural networks.

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