How YouTube How-To Videos Hack the Way Humans Learn

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Photo: Ann Cutting/Getty Images

Thanks to the explosion of instructional videos on YouTube, it’s possible to learn pretty much anything — how to cartwheel, to whistle, to unclog a toilet, to paint on a smoky eye — from the comfort of your couch. (Except the toilet one. You should probably be in your bathroom for that.) Accordingly to Google, YouTube searches for the phrase “how to” grew 70 percent between 2014 and 2015; in the first half of last year alone, people in North America watched more than 100 million hours of how-to videos.

In the most recent issue of Nautilus, writer Tom Vanderbilt explained one reason for their ongoing popularity: They appeal to the way humans naturally learn.

Specifically, watching these videos activates the action-observation network, a group of connections in the brain that work to translate visual information into know-how. “If you’re looking at someone performing a task,” University of Montreal kinesiologist Luc Proteau told Vanderbilt, “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.”

To put it another way, Vanderbilt explained, “We are, in effect, simulating doing the task ourselves, warming up the same neurons that will be used when we actually give it a go.”

A caveat: We’re not the only ones who can learn via video. In one 2014 study, for example, monkeys were able to solve a puzzle after watching footage of other monkeys successfully completing it. “They had, in effect, watched a ‘how to’ video,” Vanderbilt noted. (Only one monkey was able to figure it out without the video.) And artificial-intelligence researchers have used YouTube how-tos to train robots to do things like tie a bow tie. But unlike machines, Vanderbilt wrote, we don’t need massive amounts of data to pick up the skill — one video is enough. And unlike other species, we’re particularly adept at using mimicry as a form of learning:

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,” he concluded, “and in many cases it doesn’t matter much that there’s not a living creature involved.” For plenty of things, seeing one on our screens is more than enough.