I've heard several times (such as this one) that it's dangerous to learn/prove/teach mathematics through images. I've also read somewhere that showing mathematics through images helps one's intuition because we understand better through images, due to our long date use of the vision sense. I can conceive that this information should be half-true - there might be things that can be taught with images and things that can not. From here, I have two doubts:

  1. What can and what can't be learned/proved/taught with images and why?
  2. Using mathematics this way isn't the same as geometrical thinking?

I'm also open to books/articles on this topic.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ related: lockhart's lament $\endgroup$ – wim Sep 18 '12 at 1:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I gave an answer below, but as you ask for references, the matter is discussed in J.E. Littlewood, "A Mathematician's Miscellany", showing how a picture can easily convey the essential idea. $\endgroup$ – Ronnie Brown Sep 24 '12 at 16:40
  • $\begingroup$ @RonnieBrown Thanks for it. $\endgroup$ – Billy Rubina Sep 24 '12 at 18:46

Mathematical arguments are of a formal nature and should be independent of any visual representations. Beginners might have problems seeing the distinction between a valid and complete proof from axioms and definitions and something that "looks obvious".

But this does not mean that geometric intuition is useless or that one cannot use it. After some training, one can often judge whether some visual argument can be made into a formal argument or not.

This makes for good reading on the topic: Terry Tao, There’s more to mathematics than rigour and proofs


The benefits of using images to illustrate a proof are plain $-$ complicated arguments and endless strings of symbols can be very difficult to understand and pictures can help to give a picture of what's happening. With suitable illustrations you can get intuition for what's going to happen next, and so on.

However, there are a few fairly compelling reasons not to rely on pictures exclusively, a few of which I have listed below.

  • By using pictures we are very much confined to the so-called real world. Sure, we can get lots of intuition for low-dimensional topology by drawing tori, but this isn't going to get us far if we want to study $3$- or $4$-manifolds, let alone manifolds in higher dimensions.

  • As category theory has done such a good job of showing over the last half-century or so, there are deep-rooted connections between all sorts of mathematical objects and fields which are not at all obvious. If we limit our understanding of certain objects and results to what we see in pictures, then these connections are likely to go unnoticed.

  • Mathematics is all about abstraction. By using pictures as a means of doing maths rather than merely illustrating it, we are working exclusively in the concrete. Just because a result holds in one picture I've drawn, why must it hold in all such pictures? Can it hold in other settings? Must we draw pictures of all such settings in order to prove this result? Etc.

  • Using pictures to do mathematics relies heavily on the accuracy of the pictures, as illustrated in the link in your question.

It is not fair to say that using pictures is the same as geometrical thinking. It might assist geometrical thinking, and it might even form the basis of geometrical thinking, but this thinking is not the maths itself. The maths is what follows, when the intuition is translated into a formal argument.

This isn't to say that pictures shouldn't be used at all. In fact, not using illustrations at all may be almost as damaging as using them exclusively! I mentioned category theory, and I can't say how much harder it would be to understand if we didn't use commutative diagrams.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ As my thesis advisor said to me, "Pictures don't lie, but they can deceive." $\endgroup$ – Rick Decker Sep 17 '12 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with Ricks advisor. $\endgroup$ – mick Sep 17 '12 at 13:33

One topic where pictures are very useful is in that of van Kampen diagrams in combinatorial group theory, to show one relation is a consequence of others. Here is a diagram


which shows (as I leave you to work out exactly!) that the relation $x^7$ is a consequence of the relations

$$r= x^2yxy^3,\;\; s= y^2xyx^3.$$

The $2$-dim picture is very important, and from this one can work out a linear expression of $x^7$ in terms of $r,s$: this is discussed around p. 72 of the book Nonabelian algebraic topology, from which the above (non original) diagram is borrowed. A web search on "van Kampen diagrams" gives even more elaborate examples, and more explanation.

The assumption that mathematics is truly kosher only when written on a line fails to live up to what is going on in higher dimensional algebra, where completely valid arguments often need to put in more than one dimension. One then gets the usual problem of how one writes down what is essentially a $3$-dimensional argument on a piece of paper!

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ +1 Remark that one can use variants of Todd-Coxeter coset enumeration to construct such diagrams. When I was a student in George Whitehead's Knot Theory course I once presented such a "proof without words" as a problem set solution. GW was quite amused (and curious how I constructed it). I got extra credit. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Sep 17 '12 at 15:06

I will not try to pretend to be an expert.However, as a student I feel that 1) Intuition(particularly geometrical) is essential to or helpful in understanding a problem and coming up with a solution.

Yet, a formal proof is required to prove that your thinking is correct and logical.

  • $\begingroup$ The great mathematician Haslar Whitney said that the problem with maths teaching is to make the abstract concrete. So sinple pictures, pieces of apparatus, videos, whatever, can all be useful for training us to see how the general idea, the underlying process, works. There is an interesting difference between a "proof" and an "explanation". After complaints from a student, I omitted "theorems" and "proofs" in a first year analysis course, and gave only "facts" and "explanations". But then there is an obligation for an "explanation" to "explain"! $\endgroup$ – Ronnie Brown Sep 24 '12 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ I've always been partial to proofs without words. $\endgroup$ – Rick Decker Oct 9 '12 at 0:04
  • $\begingroup$ Actually the usual expositions of mathematics are visual, using words and symbols, written mainly on a line, in which the symbols have a well defined relation to those on the left and those on the right. Is this the only possible way? The brain certainly does not operate only in such a "serial" way. I was and am fascinated by the way higher groupoid theory requires 2-dimensional rewriting to prove theorems. How will we cope with a required 5-dimensional rewriting? $\endgroup$ – Ronnie Brown Mar 27 '16 at 10:07

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.