The completion of a rigorous course in mathematics - it is not even necessary that the student does well in such a course - appears to be an excellent means of sharpening the mind and developing mental skills that are of general benefit.

**-Keith Devlin**

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The human brain finds it extremely hard to cope with a new level of abstraction. This is why it was well into the eighteenth century before mathematicians felt comfortable dealing with zero and with negative numbers, and why even today many people cannot accept the square root of minus-one as a genuine number.

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What is mathematics? Ask this question of person chosen at random, and you are likely to receive the answer "Mathematics is the study of number." With a bit of prodding as to what kind of study they mean, you may be able to induce them to come up with the description "the science of numbers." But that is about as far as you will get. And with that you will have obtained a description of mathematics that ceased to be accurate some two and a half thousand years ago!

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Sure, some [teachers] could give the standard limit definitions, but they [the students] clearly did not understand the definitions - and it would be a remarkable student who did, since it took mathematicians a couple of thousand years to sort out the notion of a limit, and I think most of us who call ourselves professional mathematicians really only understand it when we start to teach the stuff, either in graduate school or beyond.

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What makes it possible to learn advanced math fairly quickly is that the human brain is capable of learning to follow a given set of rules without understanding them, and apply them in an intelligent and useful fashion. Given sufficient practice, the brain eventually discovers (or creates) meaning in what began as a meaningless game.

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Outside observers often assume that the more complicted a piece of mathematics is, the more mathematicians admire it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mathematicians admire elegance and simplicity above all else, and the ultimate goal in solving a problem is to find the method that does the job in the most efficient manner. Though the major accolades are given to the individual who solves a particular problem first, credit (and gratitude) always goes to those who subsequently find a simpler solution.

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For all the time schools devote to the teaching of mathematics, very little (if any) is spent trying to convey just what the subject is about. Instead, the focus is on learning and applying various procedures to solve math problems. That's a bit like explaining soccer by saying it is executing a series of maneuvers to get the ball into the goal. Both accurately describe various key features, but they miss the what and the why of the big picture.

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In addition to its use in arithmetic and science, the Hindu-Arabic number system is the only genuinely universal language on Earth, apart perhaps for the Windows operating system, which has achieved the near universal adoption of a conceptually and technologically poor product by the sheer force of market dominance.

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Mathematical thinking is not the same as doing mathematics - at least not as mathematics is typically presented in our school system. School math typically focuses on learning procedures to solve highly stereotyped problems. Professional mathematicians think a certain way to solve real problems, problems that can arise from the everyday world, or from science, or from within mathematics itself. The key to success in school math is to learn to think inside-the-box. In contrast, a key feature of mathematical thinking is thinking outside-the-box - a valuable ability in today's world.

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