A correspondent on Quora explains the insider's view to an outsider. Some selections:
- You can answer many seemingly difficult questions quickly. But you are not very impressed by what can look like magic, because you know the trick. The trick is that your brain can quickly decide if a question is answerable by one of a few powerful general purpose "machines" (e.g., continuity arguments, the correspondences between geometric and algebraic objects, linear algebra, ways to reduce the infinite to the finite through various forms of compactness) combined with specific facts you have learned about your area. The number of fundamental ideas and techniques that people use to solve problems is, perhaps surprisingly, pretty small -- see for a partial list, maintained by Timothy Gowers.
- You go up in abstraction, "higher and higher". The main object of study yesterday becomes just an example or a tiny part of what you are considering today. For example, in calculus classes you think about functions or curves. In functional analysis or algebraic geometry, you think of spaces whose pointsare functions or curves -- that is, you "zoom out" so that every function is just a point in a space, surrounded by many other "nearby" functions. Using this kind of zooming out technique, you can say very complex things in short sentences -- things that, if unpacked and said at the zoomed-in level, would take up pages. Abstracting and compressing in this way makes it possible to consider extremely complicated issues with one's limited memory and processing power.
- You are easily annoyed by imprecision in talking about the quantitative or logical. This is mostly because you are trained to quickly think about counterexamples that make an imprecise claim seem obviously false.