I was in a seminar today and the lecturer said that the gaussian distribution is isotropic. What does it mean for a distribution to be isotropic? It seems like he is using this property for the pseudo-independence of vectors where each entry is sampled from the normal distribution.

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    $\begingroup$ In general, a multivariate normal distribution can be anisotropic depending on the covariance matrix. There has. clearly been some miscommunication somewhere along the way. $\endgroup$ – Brian Borchers Oct 30 '16 at 18:52

TLDR: An isotropic gaussian is one where the covariance matrix is represented by the simplified matrix $\Sigma = \sigma^{2}I$.

Some motivations:

Consider the traditional gaussian distribution:

$$ \mathcal{N}(\mu,\,\Sigma) $$

where $\mu$ is the mean and $\Sigma$ is the covariance matrix.

Consider how the number of free parameters in this Gaussian grows as the number of dimensions grows.

$\mu$ will have a linear growth. $\Sigma$ will have a quadratic growth!

This quadratic growth can be very computationally expensive, so $\Sigma$ is often restricted as $\Sigma = \sigma^{2}I$ where $\sigma^{2}I$ is a scalar variance multiplied by an identity matrix.

Note that this results in $\Sigma$ where all dimensions are independent and where the variance of each dimension is the same. So the gaussian will be circular/spherical.

Disclaimer: Not a mathematician, and I only just learned about this so may be missing some things :)

Hope that helps!

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    $\begingroup$ The variables of the multivariate Gaussian may not be independent, even if they have zero covariance. Covariance is a measure of only linear association. Independence implies zero covariance but not vice versa. See this example. $\endgroup$ – mloning Nov 29 '19 at 9:10
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    $\begingroup$ @mloning, your comment is a bit misleading here. When a random vector has as a multivariate normal, 0 covariance does indeed imply independence. All of this gets its own wikipedia page: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… The notation above suggests to me multivariate normality, so, it's fine. Another way in which the normal distribution is magical $\endgroup$ – RMurphy Apr 24 '20 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, wasn't aware of that, thanks for the clarification! $\endgroup$ – mloning Apr 25 '20 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ Another motivation: The conjugate prior of a multivariate normal distribution with unit variance is isotropic normal. Like you say, there's no need for all those parameters! $\endgroup$ – Neil G Dec 23 '20 at 6:19
  • $\begingroup$ Easy to understand for beginners. As I am not a native English speaker, I was confused by the word isotropic. $\endgroup$ – GoingMyWay Mar 9 at 9:18

I'd just like to add a bit of visuals to the other answers.

When the variables are independent, i.e. the distrubtion is isotropic, it means that the distribution is aligned with the axis.

For example, for $\Sigma = \begin{pmatrix}1 & 0 \\ 0 & 30\end{pmatrix}$, you'd get something like this:

image of 2D gaussian with higher Y variance

So, what happens when it is not isotropic? For example, when $\Sigma = \begin{pmatrix}1 & 15 \\ 15 & 30\end{pmatrix}$, the distribution appears "rotated", no longer aligned with the axes:

image of 2D gaussian with covariance between X and Y

Note that this is just an example, the $\Sigma$ above is invalid since it is not PSD.


import numpy as np
from matplotlib import pyplot as plt

pts = np.random.multivariate_normal([0, 0], [[1,15],[15,31]], size=10000, check_valid='warn')

plt.scatter(pts[:, 0], pts[:, 1], s=1)
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    $\begingroup$ This seems to contradict the other answers, the matrix [1 0;0 30] is a diagonal matrix, but it can't be written as $\sigma I$ since not all diagonal entries are the same. I'm not sure which one it should be $\endgroup$ – Alex Li Sep 27 '20 at 20:34

I am not a math major student but I will give a try to describe my understanding: an isotropic gaussian distribution means a multidimensional gaussian distribution with its variance matrix as an identity matrix multiplied by the same number on its diagonal. Each dimension can be seen as an independent one-dimension gaussian distribution (no covariance exists).


Thanks to Tomoiagă, valuable learning opportunity. Explanation for psd in his answer.

w.r.t material in course Probabilistic Deep Learning with TensorFlow 2 in coursera.

the definition for positive semi-definite:

A symmetric matrix $M \in \mathbb{R}^{d\times d}$ is positive semi-definite if it satisfies $b^TMb \ge 0$ for all nonzero $b\in\mathbb{R}^d$. If, in addition, we have $b^TMb = 0 \Rightarrow > b=0$ then $M$ is positive definite.

In one word: the valid covariance matrix should be symmetry and positive (semi-)definite. However, how to check the $\Sigma$ satisfied with the requirement?

Here comes The Cholesky decomposition

For every real-valued symmetric positive-definite matrix $M$, there is a unique lower-diagonal matrix $L$ that has positive diagonal entries for which

\begin{equation} LL^T = M \end{equation} This is called the Cholesky decomposition of $M$

Let's build some codes.

Given a psd matrix $ \Sigma = \begin{bmatrix} 10 & 5 \\ 5 & 10 \end{bmatrix}$ and a non-psd $ \Sigma = \begin{bmatrix} 10 & 11 \\ 11 & 10 \end{bmatrix}$ as the covariance matrix

sigma = [[10., 5.],[5., 10.]]


<tf.Tensor: shape=(2, 2), dtype=float32, numpy= array([[3.1622777, 0.  ],
       [1.5811388, 2.738613 ]], dtype=float32)>
bad_sigma = [[10., 11.], [11., 10.]]
    scale_tril = tf.linalg.cholesky(bad_sigma)
except Exception as e:


Cholesky decomposition was not successful. The input might not be valid.

For convenience, a lower-triangular matrix is easier to create.

Last, the demo with isotropic Gaussian and non-isotropic ones.

import seaborn as sns
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
%matplotlib inline

## isotropic normal
sigma = [[1., 0.],[0., 1.]]
lower_triangular = np.linalg.cholesky(sigma)
sigma = np.matmul(lower_triangular, np.transpose(lower_triangular))

bivariate_normal = np.random.multivariate_normal([0, 0], sigma, size=10000, check_valid='warn')

x1 = bivariate_normal[:, 0]
x2 = bivariate_normal[:, 1]
sns.jointplot(x1, x2, kind='kde', space=0, color='b')


# #non-isotropic normal
# sigma = [[1. , 0.6], [0.6, 1.]]



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