The Self-Organizing Map algorithm belongs to the field of Artificial Neural Networks and Neural Computation. More broadly it belongs to the field of Computational Intelligence. The Self-Organizing Map is an unsupervised neural network that uses a competitive (winner-take-all) learning strategy. It is related to other unsupervised neural networks such as the Adaptive Resonance Theory (ART) method. It is related to other competitive learning neural networks such as the the Neural Gas Algorithm, and the Learning Vector Quantization algorithm, which is a similar algorithm for classification without connections between the neurons. Additionally, SOM is a baseline technique that has inspired many variations and extensions, not limited to the Adaptive-Subspace Self-Organizing Map (ASSOM).


The Self-Organizing Map is inspired by postulated feature maps of neurons in the brain comprised of feature-sensitive cells that provide ordered projections between neuronal layers, such as those that may exist in the retina and cochlea. For example, there are acoustic feature maps that respond to sounds to which an animal is most frequently exposed, and tonotopic maps that may be responsible for the order preservation of acoustic resonances.


The information processing objective of the algorithm is to optimally place a topology (grid or lattice) of codebook or prototype vectors in the domain of the observed input data samples. An initially random pool of vectors is prepared which are then exposed to training samples. A winner-take-all strategy is employed where the most similar vector to a given input pattern is selected, then the selected vector and neighbors of the selected vector are updated to closer resemble the input pattern. The repetition of this process results in the distribution of codebook vectors in the input space which approximate the underlying distribution of samples from the test dataset. The result is the mapping of the topology of codebook vectors to the underlying structure in the input samples which may be summarized or visualized to reveal topologically preserved features from the input space in a low-dimensional projection.