Learning sparse features can lead to overfitting in neural networks

Leonardo Petrini, Eric Vanden-Eijnden, Francesco Cagnetta, Matthieu Wyart

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


It is widely believed that the success of deep networks lies in their ability to learn a meaningful representation of the features of the data. Yet, understanding when and how this feature learning improves performance remains a challenge: for example, it is beneficial for modern architectures trained to classify images, whereas it is detrimental for fully-connected networks trained on the same data. Here we propose an explanation for this puzzle, by showing that feature learning can perform worse than lazy training (via random feature kernel or the NTK) as the former can lead to a sparser neural representation. Although sparsity is known to be essential for learning anisotropic data, it is detrimental when the target function is constant or smooth along certain directions of input space. We illustrate this phenomenon in two settings: (i) regression of Gaussian random functions on the d-dimensional unit sphere and (ii) classification of benchmark datasets of images. For (i), we compute the scaling of the generalization error with the number of training points and show that methods that do not learn features generalize better, even when the dimension of the input space is large. For (ii), we show empirically that learning features can indeed lead to sparse and thereby less smooth representations of the image predictors. This fact is plausibly responsible for deteriorating the performance, which is known to be correlated with smoothness along diffeomorphisms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationAdvances in Neural Information Processing Systems 35 - 36th Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems, NeurIPS 2022
EditorsS. Koyejo, S. Mohamed, A. Agarwal, D. Belgrave, K. Cho, A. Oh
PublisherNeural information processing systems foundation
ISBN (Electronic)9781713871088
StatePublished - 2022
Event36th Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems, NeurIPS 2022 - New Orleans, United States
Duration: Nov 28 2022Dec 9 2022

Publication series

NameAdvances in Neural Information Processing Systems
ISSN (Print)1049-5258


Conference36th Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems, NeurIPS 2022
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CityNew Orleans

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Computer Networks and Communications
  • Information Systems
  • Signal Processing


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