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2 Replaced backticks by quote marks, corrected three spelling mistakes

How big a gap is there between how you think about mathematics and what you say to others? Do you say what you're thinking? Please give either personal examples of how your thoughts and words differ, or describe how they are connected for you.

I've been fascinated by the phenomenon the question addresses for a long time. We have complex minds evolved over many millions of years, with many modules always at work. A lot we don't habitualy habitually verbalize, and some of it is very challenging to verbalize or to communicate in any medium. Whether for this or other reasons, I'm under the impression that mathematicians often have unspoken thought processes guiding their work which may be difficult to explain, or they feel too inhibited to try. One prototypical situation is this: there's a mathematical object that's obviously (to you) invariant under a certain transformation. For instant, a linear map might conserve volume for an 'obvious' reason. But you don't have good language to explain your reason---so instead of explaining, or perhaps after trying to explain and failing, you fall back on computation. You turn the crank and without undue effort, demonstrate that the object is indeed invariant.

Here's a specific example. Once I mentioned this phenomenon to Andy Gleason; he immediately responded that when he taught algebra courses, if he was discussing cyclic subgroups of a group, he had a mental image of group elements breaking into a formation organized into circular groups. He said that we'we' never would say anything like that to the students. His words made a vivid picture in my head, because it fit with how I thought about groups. I was reminded of my long struggle as a student, trying to attach *meaning* meaning to group', 'group', rather than just a collection of symbols, words, definitonsdefinitions, theorems and proofs that I read in a textbook.

Please note: I'm not advocating that we turn mathematics into a touchy-feely subject. I'm not claiming that the phenomenon I've observed is universal. I do think that paying more attention than current custom to how you and others are really thinking, to the intuitions, is helpful both in proving theorems and in explaining mathematics.

I'm very curious about the varied ways that people think, and I would like to hear.

What am I really thinking? I'm anxious about offending the guardians of the forum and being scolded (as they have every right to do) for going against clearly stated advice with a newby newbie mistake. But I can't help myself because I'm very curious how you will answer, and I can endure being scolded.

Post Made Community Wiki by François G. Dorais
1

Thinking and Explaining

How big a gap is there between how you think about mathematics and what you say to others? Do you say what you're thinking? Please give either personal examples of how your thoughts and words differ, or describe how they are connected for you.

I've been fascinated by the phenomenon the question addresses for a long time. We have complex minds evolved over many millions of years, with many modules always at work. A lot we don't habitualy verbalize, and some of it is very challenging to verbalize or to communicate in any medium. Whether for this or other reasons, I'm under the impression that mathematicians often have unspoken thought processes guiding their work which may be difficult to explain, or they feel too inhibited to try. One prototypical situation is this: there's a mathematical object that's obviously (to you) invariant under a certain transformation. For instant, a linear map might conserve volume for an obvious' reason. But you don't have good language to explain your reason---so instead of explaining, or perhaps after trying to explain and failing, you fall back on computation. You turn the crank and without undue effort, demonstrate that the object is indeed invariant.

Here's a specific example. Once I mentioned this phenomenon to Andy Gleason; he immediately responded that when he taught algebra courses, if he was discussing cyclic subgroups of a group, he had a mental image of group elements breaking into a formation organized into circular groups. He said that we' never would say anything like that to the students. His words made a vivid picture in my head, because it fit with how I thought about groups. I was reminded of my long struggle as a student, trying to attach *meaning* togroup', rather than just a collection of symbols, words, definitons, theorems and proofs that I read in a textbook.

Please note: I'm not advocating that we turn mathematics into a touchy-feely subject. I'm not claiming that the phenomenon I've observed is universal. I do think that paying more attention than current custom to how you and others are really thinking, to the intuitions, is helpful both in proving theorems and in explaining mathematics.

I'm very curious about the varied ways that people think, and I would like to hear.

What am I really thinking? I'm anxious about offending the guardians of the forum and being scolded (as they have every right to do) for going against clearly stated advice with a newby mistake. But I can't help myself because I'm very curious how you will answer, and I can endure being scolded.