Mathematical thinking and software

Further to my post citing Keith Devlin on the difficulties of doing mathematics online, I have heard from one prominent mathematician that he does all his mathematics now using LaTeX, not using paper or whiteboard, and thus disagrees with Devlin’s (and my) views.   Thinking about why this may be, and about my own experiences using LaTeX, it occurred to me that one’s experiences with thinking-support software, such as word-processing packages such as MS-WORD or  mark-up programming languages such as LaTeX, will very much depend on the TYPE of thinking one is doing.

If one is thinking with words and text, or text-like symbols such as algebra, the right-handed folk among us are likely to be using the left hemispheres of our brains.  If one is thinking in diagrams, as in geometry or graph theory or much of engineering including computing, the right-handed among us are more likely to be using the right hemispheres of our brains.  Yet MS-WORD and LaTeX are entirely text-based, and their use requires the heavy involvement of our left hemispheres (for the northpaws among us).  One doesn’t draw an arrow in LaTeX, for example, but instead types a command such as \rightarrow or \uparrow.   If one is already using one’s left hemisphere to do the mathematical thinking, as most algebraists would be, then the cognitive load in using the software will be a lot less then if one is using one’s right hemisphere for the mathematical thinking.  Activities which require both hemispheres are typically very challenging to most of us, since co-ordination between the two hemispheres adds further cognitive overhead.

I find LaTeX immeasurably better than any other word-processor for writing text:  it and I work at the same speed (which is not true of MS-WORD for me, for example), and I am able to do my verbal thinking in it.  In this case, writing is a form of thinking, not merely the subsequent expression of thoughts I’ve already had.     However, I cannot do my mathematical or formal thinking in LaTeX, and the software is at best a tool for subsequent expression of thoughts already done elsewhere – mentally, on paper, or on a whiteboard.    My formal thinking is usually about structure and relationship, and not as often algebraic symbol manipulation.

Bill Thurston, the geometer I recently quoted, said:

I was interested in geometric areas of mathematics, where it is often pretty hard to have a document that reflects well the way people actually think.  In more algebraic or symbolic fields, this is not necessarily so, and I have the impression that in some areas documents are much closer to carrying the life of the field.”  [Thurston 1994, p. 169]

It is interesting that many non-mathematical writers also do their thinking about structure not in the document itself or as they write, but outside it and beforehand, and often using tools such as post-it notes on boards; see the recent  article by John McPhee in The New Yorker for examples from his long writing life.


John McPhee [2013]: Structure:  Beyond the picnic-table crisisThe New Yorker, 14 January 2013, pages 46-55.

William F. Thurston [1994]:  On proof and progress in mathematicsAmerican Mathematical Society, 30 (2):  161-177.

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