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JoMA: Demystifying Multilayer Transformers via Joint Dynamics of MLP and Attention

Yuandong Tian · Yiping Wang · Zhenyu Zhang · Beidi Chen · Simon Du

Halle B #260
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Tue 7 May 1:45 a.m. PDT — 3:45 a.m. PDT


We propose Joint MLP/Attention (JoMA) dynamics, a novel mathematical framework to understand the training procedure of multilayer Transformer architectures. This is achieved by integrating out the self-attention layer in Transformers, producing a modified dynamics of MLP layers only. JoMA removes unrealistic assumptions in previous analysis (e.g., lack of residual connection), and predicts that the attention first becomes sparse (to learn salient tokens), then dense (to learn less salient tokens) in the presence of nonlinear activations, while in the linear case, it is consistent with existing works. We leverage JoMA to qualitatively explains how tokens are combined to form hierarchies in multilayer Transformers, when the input tokens are generated by a latent hierarchical generative model. Experiments on models trained from real-world dataset (Wikitext2/Wikitext103) and various pre- trained models (OPT, Pythia) verify our theoretical findings. The code is at

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