# Why is mutual information symmetric?

I know that mutual information is the Kullback-Leibler divergence between $$p(x,y)$$ and $$p(x)p(y)$$. But mutual information is also described as the amount of entropy lost (or, in another sense, the information gained) about $$X$$ by virtue of knowing about $$Y$$.

Without just looking at the formula, it's not clear why the additional info about $$X$$ due to having $$Y$$ would be the same as the additional information about $$Y$$ due to having $$X$$. It's not immediately obvious that predicting $$Y$$ from the behavior of $$X$$ is just as easy as predicting $$X$$ from the behavior of $$Y$$. While "mutual" is in the name, mutual information is described in terms of learning about $$X$$ using Y, and so in the same way that e.g. KL divergence (which is described in terms of describing $$X$$ using $$Y$$) is asymmetric, the intuition for me would have been that "mutual" information is asymmetric too.

Is there any intuition here without just looking at the formula for $$I(X;Y)$$?

I know that mutual information is the Kullback-Leibler divergence between $$p(x,y)$$ and $$p(x)p(y)$$.

Yes and no. Kullback–Leibler divergence between two distributions $$p$$ and $$q$$ is defined as

$$\sum_x p(x) \, \log\Big( \frac{p(x)}{q(x)} \Big)$$

where it is asymmetric because $$\tfrac{p(x)}{q(x)} \ne \tfrac{q(x)}{p(x)}$$ and because you weight it by $$p(x)$$ that would give different result as weighting by $$q(x)$$.

Mutual information between two random variables $$X$$ and $$Y$$ is

$$\sum_{x,y} p_{X,Y}(x, y) \,\log\Big( \frac{p_{X,Y}(x, y)}{p_X(x) \,p_Y(y)} \Big)$$

Notice that $$p_{X,Y}(x, y) = p_{Y,X}(y,x)$$, same as $$p_X(x) \, p_Y(y) = p_Y(y) \, p_X(x)$$ so exchanging $$X$$ with $$Y$$ would not change the result, it is symmetric.

It would be asymmetric if you changed places of $$p_{X,Y}(x, y)$$ and $$p_X(x) \, p_Y(y)$$, but this wouldn't be mutual information anymore, but rather KL divergence. It also wouldn't make much sense, because $$p_{X,Y}(x, y)$$ is the joint distribution, while using independence in $$p_X(x) \, p_Y(y)$$ serves as "worst case scenario" that we compare to.

Without just looking at the formula, it's not clear why the additional info about $$X$$ due to having $$Y$$ would be the same as the additional information about $$Y$$ due to having $$X$$.

This sounds more like the definition of conditional entropy. Mutual information measures “mutual dependence between the two variables” and is symmetric.

• This isn't an answer: it's a comment that reframes the question. What would your answer be?
– whuber
Feb 11 at 17:35
• Your "No." is wrong. MI is a KL between the joint and product of marginals. Feb 21 at 10:52
• @dr.ivanova as the answer states, they measure different things, in the sense, they are not the same, and it explains the asymmetry. But ok, edited the wording.
– Tim
Feb 21 at 11:50
• No, they do not measure different things. Mutual information is the KL divergence between the joint and the product of marginals. And vice versa -- you give me the KL between the joint $p_{x,y}$ and $p_x p_y$ and that's exactly the MI(X;Y). Mutual information is symmetric in the densities $p_x$ and $p_y$, not in $X$ and $Y$. I'm not sure what you mean by "exchange $X$ and $Y$", i.e. you cannot swap them to plug in $Y$ in the density $p_x$. Feb 21 at 15:09
• @dr.ivanova sure you cannot exchange them like you say but you can calculate MI(X, Y) = MI(Y, X) while there is no such symmetry in KL-divergence, because it measures different thing.
– Tim
Feb 21 at 17:30

You are correct that the $$MI$$ is the KL-Divergence between the joint $$p(x, y)$$ and factored marginal distributions $$p(x)p(y)$$. With the KL-Divergence telling us "how similar" the two distributions are. So, what $$MI$$ is measuring is the amount of information gain if we update from a model that treats the two variables as independent $$p(x)p(y)$$ versus one that models the variables joint probability density $$p(x, y)$$.

If one models the true joint probability density, then we also have access to conditional probability distributions $$p(x|y)$$ where I like to think of these as "given $$Y = y$$", how does the distribution of $$X$$ change? Or, given $$X = x$$, how does the distribution of $$Y$$ change? Given we are modeling the joint and factored marginal distributions, we can then re-express $$MI$$ in terms of joint and conditional entropies:

$$I (X; Y ) = H (X) − H (X|Y ) = H (Y ) − H (Y |X)$$

Therefore, we can interpret the $$MI$$ between $$X$$ and $$Y$$ as the reduction in uncertainty about $$X$$ after observing $$Y$$, or, by symmetry, the reduction in uncertainty about $$Y$$ after observing $$X$$