Learning by Reading and Learning by Watching

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright Nov 2010


There is a big difference in thought processing between watching action happen on a screen and reading text and charts. For this reason reading skill may be much more important to learning analytic thinking than watching a video, and for that reason reading is a skill that is vital, absolutely vital, to having a person make good choices in our civilized society.


Any teacher will tell you: It is amazing the change that comes over students when you turn on a monitor and start up a video. Whatever mood they were in before, they settle down to watch: They are changing their mental state.

I propose this change is happening because how the brain processes video viewing is quite different from how it processes in-person viewing, and how it processes reading. And I propose this difference is deep and important -- it is part of the difference between instinctive and analytic thinking.

This difference may be more than a curiosity, it may strongly influence how people learn what is being taught -- which means it is influencing how they are taught to think. How a person thinks affects how they respond to the world around them -- how they act -- so the difference is important.

The difference between learning by watching a video and learning by reading may be related to the difference between learning to use analytic thinking and learning to use emotional thinking in deciding on courses of action.

If so, it makes a big difference, and we should be aware of its ramifications. It is a difference that is at the heart of being civilized.

First, the physiology

Watching a video and reading text are two very different ways of acquiring information. When watching a video a person is:

o processing visual and audio information simultaneously

o translating visual images into spatial context in addition to the all other information that is presented

o processing emotional content as displayed by body language, the emotional overtones in the speech, and the background sound choices such as music

o seeing the information just once, unless the person rewinds or watches again

o acquiring information in the oldest information-moving format available to humans

When reading text and charts a person is:

o processing abstract visual symbols into words with meanings and doing nothing with sound

o discovering mathematical relations as displayed by tables and charts

o able to reread, skim, and randomly access information easily

o using a new information-acquiring technique that has only been available for 250 human generations

These are very different ways of acquiring information. As a result the kind of information acquired easily by these two methods is also very different.

Bandwidth usage

One of the big differences between watching video and reading is how the information bandwidth is used. In a video the whole screen is available, plus the audio channel. In a book only a small part of the video channel is available -- what it takes to see letters -- and that part requires some completely arbitrary translation -- the actual reading process, which humans must spend a lot of time and effort to learn. Given these differences, in theory video should be able to pump information into the human brain dozens of times as fast as reading.

But in practice I find, and many of my friends have found, that reading gets them the information they want much faster than watching a video.


Part of the answer is what kind of information a person is looking for, and part is how thinking in the brain is organized.

Evolution has built a lot of processing power into the brain visual and audio systems for handling things such as listening to voices and looking at faces for emotional content, and for judging distances between objects for navigation and object handling tasks. It has pumped up the performance of these processing skills because these have been valuable skills for millions of generations of our ancestors.

Abstract mathematics, on the other hand, is a skill humans started acquiring about the same time as writing skills, about 250 generations ago. By brain hardwiring standards, demand for this skill is very new. And scientific reasoning and analysis skill is even newer. It started about 25 generations ago.

What this means is that the part of the brain dealing with science, and other real world information of the sort we now call "important news of the world", is small, low capacity and slow compared to the part dealing with navigation and interpreting the emotions other people are displaying. This means that the bandwidth of a video is really too high for the brain to cope with when it is trying to master these new kinds of thinking -- analysis and reason. And, in many ways, really not otherwise as well-suited. This is why simple dial displays are very well suited for things such as informing a person of the time of day and how much fuel is in a gas tank. This information is for the reasoning part of the brain, so it should be presented in a simple fashion.

And those who produce videos have come to recognize this. Each video produced is an experiment: Who will watch? What will they think of it? Will they watch more of what I produce? The result of this constant experimenting is that contemporary news broadcasts (videos by this essay's definition) will show mostly talking heads with cuts to shots of crowds doing something, or some stock footage of machines doing something that is somewhat related to what is being talked about. And the talking heads will be enthusiastically taking sides on the news issues -- they will be showing emotion.

Why is this the format? It's the format because it's popular, and it's popular because it's comfortable for many people to watch. It's feeding the emotion-understanding elements of the brain, the parts that can process large bandwidths quickly. While this is video display is going on, the audio track gives the information that can be used for analysis... sometimes... or it, too, simply supports emotion. So, for acquiring new information -- news information -- the video display of a news broadcast is essentially completely wasted and the audio is used some of the time. In sum, if a person is watching a news program for the news, the information flow is going to be slow and mixed with a lot of distractions that are put in to feed emotional thinking.

With printed word, the situation can be quite different. The printed word is the new system, and because it is very low bandwidth, and it can be randomly accessed, it is well matched for pushing analytic and reasoning information into a brain. It is also well-suited for introducing unfamiliar information -- new ideas and concepts that are not built on the age-old emotions and the already well-known stories.


Analytic or Emotional Thinking?

So... which to choose for presenting an idea: video or text?

It depends on the nature of the idea. If the idea is mostly about reasoning and analysis, then text is the clear winner. This is why science discussions, and business production discussions, are filled with text and charts.

If the idea is new -- something paradigm shifting or talking about a new invention, text is usually better. This is why new political ideas -- even though they are mostly about emotion -- get their start as text.

If the idea being communicated is already well understood, and being told to bring up familiar emotional feelings, then video will have more impact. This is why business marketing and day-to-day politics are video-oriented.

This is difference in how well the brain will accept novel ideas is the root of why so many popular books must be changed radically to be made into popular movies. Good books can let the readers' imagination fly into new territory easily. Good movies require the viewers' imagination to fly over well-tread ground.

Another example of where this difference has been discussed is in the military. In the military there has been a migration over the last couple decades to making presentations using Power Point slide shows as the presentation medium rather than a printed word report. There are some people who aren't happy with the switch. There have been discussions postulating that the migration to Power Point presentations has reduced the ability of military personnel to analyze military situations well.

Power Point is a hybrid of text and video. As it is used in the military analysis environment, the complainers have felt that "Power Point Rangers" have not done good analysis before preparing their presentations, and further, that their audiences have not objected either! The complainers feel the presenters have spent too much effort on making good-looking slides showing simple relations, and the viewers have been satisfied with the overly simple results. The complainers feel that if those presentations had been done as full text reports instead, the preparers and the audience would have done better analysis.

This is an example of people commenting on the difference in thinking that accompanies various communications methods. And it shows that some people think the method makes a big difference. Another famous commentator of the 1960's on this difference was Marshall McLuhan and his most famous quote, "The medium is the message."


Text or Voice?

The most recent manifestation of this duality in communications methods shows up in using the cell phone. These days cell phone users can communicate using either text or voice. To my surprise many choose text even at times when voice is just as suitable.

Why should this be? How hard is it to talk to someone compared to keeping one's fingers busy on one of those tiny keyboards? One possible answer as to why text is so popular is that voice carries a lot of emotional content as well as topical content, and the users may feel more comfortable not puffing up the information flow with that added emotional baggage and the necessity for a real-time response.

Modern Multitasking

Modern multi-tasking is the next step... perhaps. It is not yet clear how well multi-tasking will mesh with good analysis. Personally, I don't multi-task. But then again... I'm old. But then again... I'm not sure that even a person who grows up immersed in a multi-tasking environment can do good analysis. Such a person can learn to become a quick decision maker which is a valuable skill. But are those quick decisions going to be based on emotion or analysis? Certainly emotion is going to provide quicker and more short-term comfortable answers.

How Does this Fit into Thinking About Modern Issues?

Many TV news people long nostalgically for the days of Walter Cronkite -- Cronkite is a symbol for days when news was presented moderately and in a balanced fashion. These days news is presented emotionally and with enthusiastic bias. It's gotten so extreme that in 2010 a comedy news program on a cable channel now commands as much respect as a news source as the formal news programs on the broadcast channels. ...Times have changed, indeed!

And it's not just news. The science and history presentations on cable TV channels show this same tendency toward heavily biased, emotion-filled presentations.

I propose that the reason for this migration is that viewers want to see emotion in their videos. This is what video shows very comfortably because this is what is easy for the brain to process.

The problem is: we, as beings living in a civilized environment, need to have strong analytic skills -- Stone Age Thinking, emotion-based thinking, is great for the Stone Age, but not for the Information Age.


How to Teach Thinking for Modern Times

We don't live in the Stone Age environment. For this reason it is very important that we train ourselves and our children to be good analytic thinkers. The better that we can all do analysis, the better the decisions we will make in our day-to-day lives dealing with the civilized world around us.

For this reason -- training our brains how to think -- it is important that we emphasize the importance of both reading and math skills. Reading and math are the bedrock of analytic thinking, and analytic thinking is what we need to use when dealing "new situations" -- new situations meaning: Anything that isn't common in the Stone Age village environment.

Video is good for teaching emotion. Teaching how to "take a stand" is good for teaching emotion. Teaching self-confidence and self-worth is good for teaching emotion. All good... but all well-suited for Stone Age living... which is an environment few of us live in today. What we need for civilized living is learning how to analyze -- learning how to look at choices and events in a cost-benefit perspective, how to read a chart, how not to be fooled by misleading analysis of statistics, how to tell the difference between science and pseudo science.

In sum, how to think well in ways that are well adapted to living in the civilized environment.

To do that, we need to teach analysis, and to do that we need to teach reading and math, and we need to recognize that the video is good for the heartstrings, but not for the cool-head.


-- The End --