Abstract: In recent years, contrastive learning achieves impressive results on self-supervised visual representation learning, but there still lacks a rigorous understanding of its learning dynamics. In this paper, we show that if we cast a contrastive objective equivalently into the feature space, then its learning dynamics admits an interpretable form. Specifically, we show that its gradient descent corresponds to a specific message passing scheme on the corresponding augmentation graph. Based on this perspective, we theoretically characterize how contrastive learning gradually learns discriminative features with the alignment update and the uniformity update. Meanwhile, this perspective also establishes an intriguing connection between contrastive learning and Message Passing Graph Neural Networks (MP-GNNs). This connection not only provides a unified understanding of many techniques independently developed in each community, but also enables us to borrow techniques from MP-GNNs to design new contrastive learning variants, such as graph attention, graph rewiring, jumpy knowledge techniques, etc. We believe that our message passing perspective not only provides a new theoretical understanding of contrastive learning dynamics, but also bridges the two seemingly independent areas together, which could inspire more interleaving studies to benefit from each other. The code is available at https://github.com/PKU-ML/Message-Passing-Contrastive-Learning.
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