Something that is easy to miss in early calculus classes is that the inverse of a function is typically not a function. We go through this whole confusing notion first with the square root (because while it is true that if then , we all know that we like +4 better), then with trig functions. I would argue that it is helpful to think about the inverse of a function as a set, and then point out the wonderful fact that if all the inverses of individual points have only one or zero members, then there is a function g so that g(f(x)) = x.
Typically though, inverse images will have more than one point. Indeed, for a map , you will expect to be m-n dimensional, if m is bigger than n, and a point otherwise. Intuitively, this is because we have m equations and n unknowns, leaving us with m-n free variables. This suggests a way of visualizing functions that I have actually never seen used (references to where it has been used are welcome).
What I have in mind is that, if you have a function , and it so happens that can be isometrically embedded back into U by choosing the well from the sets , then we may plot the inverse images of f on the same graph as we draw the domain of f.
That last paragraph was confusing, so let me give an example right away. We will look at the function f which maps from the solid torus (donut) to the real numbers, so
The map of the torus that gives the radius of a point. The line in red is the range of the map. Notice it intersects with every shell exactly once.
that f(x) is the distance of x from the center of the solid torus. Hence will be the (not solid) torus of radius r. I have made the graph I describe above for this map. Notice that the image of the torus under f, a circle, is indicated in blue in the left of the graph.
This picture has a nice intuition: each surface will map down to one point (so our intuition earlier holds up- f maps a three dimensional object down onto one dimension, so the inverse images are all two dimensional), so we can easily look at this and see the domain, range and action of f on the domain. Notice also that to plot this in a traditional manner it would take either 4 dimensions as a graph, or 1 overloaded dimension as a parametric plot. This particular example *could* be displayed using a movie, though again we would be displaying fibers of the map.
The last image of this sort is where we instead map a torus (again, non-solid) to a circle. Notice that now the map is from a 2-D surface to a 1-D curve, so we expect (and see that) the fibers to be 1 dimensional.
The inverse images of the torus-radius map, as the radius goes from 0 to 1.
Inverse images of a projection-of-sorts of the torus onto a circle.