All You Need To Understanding Activation Function In Neural Networks

Brief overview of neural networks

Before I delve into the details of activation functions, let us quickly go through the concept of neural networks and how they work. A neural network is a very powerful machine learning mechanism which basically mimics how a human brain learns.

The brain receives the stimulus from the outside world, does the processing on the input, and then generates the output. As the task gets complicated, multiple neurons form a complex network, passing information among themselves.

An Artificial Neural Network tries to mimic a similar behavior. The network you see below is a neural network made of interconnected neurons. Each neuron is characterized by its weight, bias and activation function.

The input is fed to the input layer, the neurons perform a linear transformation on this input using the weights and biases.


Weights are values that control the strength of the connection between two neurons. That is, inputs are typically multiplied by weights, and that defines how much influence the input will have on the output.


Bias terms are additional constants attached to neurons and added to the weighted input before the activation function is applied. Bias terms help models represent patterns that do not necessarily pass through the origin.

Weighted input

A neuron’s input equals the sum of weighted outputs from all neurons in the previous layer. Each input is multiplied by the weight associated with the synapse connecting the input to the current neuron.

Post that, an activation function is applied on the above result.

Finally, the output from the activation function moves to the next hidden layer and the same process is repeated. This forward movement of information is known as the forward propagation.

What if the output generated is far away from the actual value? Using the output from the forward propagation, error is calculated. Based on this error value, the weights and biases of the neurons are updated. This process is known as back-propagation.

Popular types of activation functions and when to use them

1. Binary Step Function

The first thing that comes to our mind when we have an activation function would be a threshold based classifier i.e. whether or not the neuron should be activated based on the value from the linear transformation.

In other words, if the input to the activation function is greater than a threshold, then the neuron is activated, else it is deactivated, i.e. its output is not considered for the next hidden layer. Let us look at it mathematically

This is the simplest activation function, which can be implemented with a single if-else condition in python


The binary step function can be used as an activation function while creating a binary classifier. As you can imagine, this function will not be useful when there are multiple classes in the target variable. That is one of the limitations of binary step function.

2. Linear Activation Function

A linear activation function takes the form:

It takes the inputs, multiplied by the weights for each neuron, and creates an output signal proportional to the input. In one sense, a linear function is better than a step function because it allows multiple outputs, not just yes and no.

However, a linear activation function has two major problems:

1. Not possible to use backpropagation (gradient descent) to train the model — the derivative of the function is a constant, and has no relation to the input, X. So it’s not possible to go back and understand which weights in the input neurons can provide a better prediction.

Go in-depth: See our guide on backpropagation

2. All layers of the neural network collapse into one — with linear activation functions, no matter how many layers in the neural network, the last layer will be a linear function of the first layer (because a linear combination of linear functions is still a linear function). So a linear activation function turns the neural network into just one layer.

A neural network with a linear activation function is simply a linear regression model. It has limited power and ability to handle complexity varying parameters of input data.

3. Sigmoid Activation Function

The sigmoid function is an activation function where it scales the values between 0 and 1 by applying a threshold. Below is a sigmoid curve,

The above equation represents a sigmoid function. When we apply the weighted sum in the place of X, the values are scaled in between 0 and 1. The beauty of an exponent is that the value never reaches zero nor exceed 1 in the above equation. The large negative numbers are scaled towards 0 and large positive numbers are scaled towards 1.

In the above example, as x goes to minus infinity, y goes to 0 (tends not to fire).
As x goes to infinity, y goes to 1 (tends to fire):
At x=0, y=1/2.
The threshold is set to 0.5. If the value is above 0.5 it is scaled towards 1 and if it is below 0.5 it is scaled towards 0.

We can also change the sign to implement the opposite of the threshold by the above example. With a large positive input we get a large negative output which tends to not fire and with a large negative input we get a large positive output which tends to fire.

The beauty of sigmoid function is that the derivative of the function.

Once this is computed, it is easy to apply gradient descent during back propagation. It makes it smooth to gradually descent towards to minima once this is scaled while we apply the gradient descent. Here is a visual representation,

4. Tanh Activation Function(Hyperbolic Tangent)

The Tanh function is an activation function which re scales the values between -1 and 1 by applying a threshold just like a sigmoid function. The advantage i.e the values of a tanh is zero centered which helps the next neuron during propagating.
Below is a tanh function

When we apply the weighted sum of the inputs in the tanh(x), it re scales the values between -1 and 1. . The large negative numbers are scaled towards -1 and large positive numbers are scaled towards 1.

In the above example, as x goes to minus infinity, tanh(x) goes to -1 (tends not to fire).
As x goes to infinity, tanh(x) goes to 1 (tends to fire):
At x=0, tanh(x)=0.
The thresold is set to 0. If the value is above 0 it is scaled towards 1 and if it is below 0 it is scaled towards -1.

This is implemented in the computation, just like the sigmoid it will smooth the curve where gradient descent will converge towards the minima based on the learning rate. Here is a visual of how it works,

5. ReLU Activation Function(Rectified Linear Unit)

This is one of the most widely used activation function. The benefits of ReLU is the sparsity, it allows only values which are positive and negative values are not passed which will speed up the process and it will negate or bring down possibility of occurrence of a dead neuron.

f(x) = (0,max)

This function will allow only the maximum values to pass during the front propagation as shown in the graph below. The draw backs of ReLU is when the gradient hits zero for the negative values, it does not converge towards the minima which will result in a dead neuron while back propagation.

Leaky ReLU

This can be overcome by Leaky ReLU , which allows a small negative value during the back propagation if we have a dead ReLU problem. This will eventually activate the neuron and bring it down.

f(x)=1(x<0)(αx)+1(x>=0)(x) where α is a small constant

Some people have got results with this activation function but they are not always consistent. This activation function also has drawbacks, during the front propagation if the learning rate is set very high it will overshoot killing the neuron. This will happen when the learning rate is not set at an optimum level like in the below graph,

High learning rate leading to overshoot during gradient descent.

Low and optimal learning rate leading to a gradual descent towards the minima.

6. Softmax Activation Function

Softmax function is often described as a combination of multiple sigmoids. We know that sigmoid returns values between 0 and 1, which can be treated as probabilities of a data point belonging to a particular class. Thus sigmoid is widely used for binary classification problems.

The softmax function can be used for multiclass classification problems. This function returns the probability for a datapoint belonging to each individual class. Here is the mathematical expression of the same-

While building a network for a multiclass problem, the output layer would have as many neurons as the number of classes in the target. For instance if you have three classes, there would be three neurons in the output layer. Suppose you got the output from the neurons as [1.2 , 0.9 , 0.75].

Applying the softmax function over these values, you will get the following result — [0.42 , 0.31, 0.27]. These represent the probability for the data point belonging to each class. Note that the sum of all the values is 1. Let us code this in python


Choosing the right Activation Function

Now that we have seen so many activation functions, we need some logic / heuristics to know which activation function should be used in which situation. Good or bad — there is no rule of thumb.

However depending upon the properties of the problem we might be able to make a better choice for easy and quicker convergence of the network.

  • Sigmoid functions and their combinations generally work better in the case of classifiers
  • Sigmoids and tanh functions are sometimes avoided due to the vanishing gradient problem
  • ReLU function is a general activation function and is used in most cases these days
  • If we encounter a case of dead neurons in our networks the leaky ReLU function is the best choice
  • Always keep in mind that ReLU function should only be used in the hidden layers
  • As a rule of thumb, you can begin with using ReLU function and then move over to other activation functions in case ReLU doesn’t provide with optimum results



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