Society’s Insidious Enchantment with Visual Learning
“I wish to understand the Israel- Palestine conflict. Let me find the shortest possible documentary online.”
My slothful brain a few days ago
Depending on visual content has become ubiquitous today. It is not uncommon to find EdTech companies rhapsodizing about how their visual teaching will turn kids into wizards. While knowledge dissemination via videos does have its benefits, subtle problems are lurking underneath this new age trend (yes, problems worse than those insanely annoying ads).
Written knowledge is losing the battle. ( Well, you are a blogger. Stop venting your frustrations! But wait!) Today, watching a 90-minute documentary sounds manageable, but reading for 30 minutes on the same topic sends shivers down the spine of people. Why is it so? Because processing images is cognitively easier than processing text (will revisit this later). No wonder we love watching documentaries & movies compared to picking up a book or reading a long-form article.
To be sure, this cognitive hack of faster processing should be leveraged. Problems start when it becomes all-encompassing. Today, less than 26% of under 18s read daily, an all-time historical low as per a study. Why should this alarm you?
Distorts our Political Views
Much of our political views are influenced by what we see on social media. Needless to say, social media is increasingly populated with images and videos rather than text. In such posts, the text becomes a mere sidekick. What influences you profoundly is the image. Violence, blood, protests etc. immediately capture your attention. The emotional mind hijacks the rational mind and your blood boils. Images distort reality more easily than text can.
One might say,” A picture is worth a thousand words.” Sure, a picture gives you the feeling of being at the place witnessing events unfold. But like I said above, this very credibility of pictures can make a picturesque yet distorting lie more effective and thus more calamitous!
Makes your Cognition lethargic
Reading is metaphorically similar to heavy weightlifting for your brain! A reader is actively involved in the process of reading, requiring a longer attention span and deeper cognitive effort. Reading produces an active inner voice, that cranks up our attention span as time passes. It allows you to take a pause and ponder before continuing, something that one hardly does while watching a video.
Watching a video on the other hand is a cognitively easier process. It does not demand much energy and effort from its audience. This makes it delightful when we are tired. But getting addicted to this passive activity dulls the brain.
Corrupts our Motivations
Today, everything is a spectacle. A man is drowning, capture a video. A woman is getting beaten on the road. Don’t help, but definitely record the scene! Might just get a million views on my Instagram handle. Imagine a world where videos did not exist. I am sure people would have been more helpful than they are today.
Visual Learning impoverishes Abstracting & Understanding
Probably, the biggest way in which we differ from animals is our ability to whip up abstract concepts. The fundamentals of our civilization are built on notions of freedom, liberty, ethics, democracy etc. that have no visual representation. Sure, one might say that a freely flying bird signifies freedom. But only to someone who has some notion of what freedom is.
In other words, images don’t generate new ideas. Our brain gives images meaning as per the ideas that already exist in our mind. New ideas are generated via the process of thinking. And thinking doesn’t require seeing but requires a language. (Try thinking without using any language. You can’t!). Written words enrich this language. Visual content on the other hand replaces this abstract notion of language with concrete imagery, which is infinitely poorer in terms of richness of meaning.
Imagination improves via practice and not by supporting it on the crutches of video content.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
Perhaps, the strongest rejoinder to my writing could be that videos & images have democratized knowledge. Since aeons, reading was an activity restricted to the elites of society. With the advent of high-speed internet, anyone with a screen can educate himself/ herself. I don’t deny that quantitatively a lot more people have access to knowledge today. But if we start relying completely on visual forms of knowledge dissemination, qualitatively we are regressing in time. For a society to progress, written knowledge can never be abandoned!
“A world concentrated solely on the act of seeing is a stupid world.”
Originally published at http://meditationsofavoyager.wordpress.com on May 27, 2021.