Instructional videos are popular and effective, because we’re designed to learn through imitation:
Last year, it was estimated that YouTube was home to more than 135 million how-to videos. In a 2008 survey, “instructional videos” were ranked to be the site’s third most popular content category — albeit a “distant third” behind “performance and exhibition” and “activism and outreach.” More recent data suggest that distance may have closed: In 2015, Google noted that “how to” searches on YouTube were increasing 70 percent annually. The genre is by now so mature that it makes for easy satire.
A 2014 study showed that when a group of marmosets were presented with an experimental “fruit” apparatus, most of those that watched a video of marmosets successfully opening it were able to replicate the task. They had, in effect, watched a “how to” video. Of the 12 marmosets who managed to open the box, just one figured it out sans video (in the human world, he might be the one making YouTube videos).
“We are built to observe,” as Proteau tells me. There is, in the brain, a host of regions that come together under a name that seems to describe YouTube itself, called the action-observation network. “If you’re looking at someone performing a task,” Proteau says, “you’re in fact activating a bunch of neurons that will be required when you perform the task. That’s why it’s so effective to do observation.”
This ability to learn socially, through mere observation, is most pronounced in humans. In experiments, human children have been shown to “over-imitate” the problem-solving actions of a demonstrator, even when superfluous steps are included (chimps, by contrast, tend to ignore these). Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine, puts it this way: “Humans are fundamentally unique not because they are especially clever, not just because they have big brains or language, but because they are capable of extensive and generalised imitation.” In some sense, YouTube is catnip for our social brains. We can watch each other all day, every day, and in many cases it doesn’t matter much that there’s not a living creature involved. According to Proteau’s research, learning efficiency is unaffected, at least for simple motor skills, by whether the model being imitated is live or presented on video.
There are ways to learn from videos better:
The first has to do with intention. “You need to want to learn,” Proteau says. “If you do not want to learn, then observation is just like watching a lot of basketball on the tube. That will not make you a great free throw shooter.” Indeed, as Emily Cross, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Bangor University told me, there is evidence — based on studies of people trying to learn to dance or tie knots (two subjects well covered by YouTube videos) — that the action-observation network is “more strongly engaged when you’re watching to learn, as opposed to just passively spectating.” In one study, participants in an fMRI scanner asked to watch a task being performed with the goal of learning how to do it showed greater brain activity in the parietofrontal mirror system, cerebellum and hippocampus than those simply being asked to watch it. And one region, the pre-SMA (for “supplementary motor area”), a region thought to be linked with the “internal generation of complex movements,” was activated only in the learning condition — as if, knowing they were going to have to execute the task themselves, participants began internally rehearsing it.
It also helps to arrange for the kind of feedback that makes a real classroom work so well. If you were trying to learn one of Beyonce’s dance routines, for example, Cross suggests using a mirror, “to see if you’re getting it right.” When trying to learn something in which we do not have direct visual access to how well we are doing — like a tennis serve or a golf swing — learning by YouTube may be less effective.
The final piece of advice is to look at both experts and amateurs. Work by Proteau and others has shown that subjects seemed to learn sample tasks more effectively when they were shown videos of both experts performing the task effortlessly, and the error-filled efforts of novices (as opposed to simply watching experts or novices alone). It may be, Proteau suggests, that in the “mixed” model, we learn what to strive for as well as what to avoid.