Causal inference in nonlinear systems: Granger causality versus time-delayed mutual information

Songting Li, Yanyang Xiao, Douglas Zhou, David Cai

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Granger causality (GC) analysis has been extensively applied to infer causal interactions in dynamical systems arising from economy and finance, physics, bioinformatics, neuroscience, social science, and many other fields. In the presence of potential nonlinearity in these systems, the validity of the GC analysis in general is questionable. To illustrate this, here we first construct minimal nonlinear systems and show that the GC analysis fails to infer causal relations in these systems - it gives rise to all types of incorrect causal directions. In contrast, we show that the time-delayed mutual information (TDMI) analysis is able to successfully identify the direction of interactions underlying these nonlinear systems. We then apply both methods to neuroscience data collected from experiments and demonstrate that the TDMI analysis but not the GC analysis can identify the direction of interactions among neuronal signals. Our work exemplifies inference hazards in the GC analysis in nonlinear systems and suggests that the TDMI analysis can be an appropriate tool in such a case.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number052216
JournalPhysical Review E
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 29 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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