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Friday, January 26, 2024

This Is Your Brain on Zoom

Leah Croll
Originally posted 21 Dec 23

Here is an excerpt:

Zoom vs In-Person Brain Activity

The researchers took 28 healthy volunteers and recorded multiple neural response signals of them speaking in person vs on Zoom to see whether face-processing mechanisms differ depending upon social context. They used sophisticated imaging and neuromonitoring tools to monitor the real-time brain activity of the same pairs discussing the same exact things, once in person and once over Zoom.

When study participants were face-to-face, they had higher levels of synchronized neural activity, spent more time looking directly at each other, and demonstrated increased arousal (as indicated by larger pupil diameters), suggestive of heightened engagement and increased mutual exchange of social cues. In keeping with these behavioral findings, the study also found that face-to-face meetings produced more activation of the dorsal-parietal cortex on functional near-infrared spectroscopy. Similarly, in-person encounters were associated with more theta oscillations seen on electroencephalography, which are associated with face processing. These multimodal findings led the authors to conclude that there are probably separable neuroprocessing pathways for live faces presented in person and for the same live faces presented over virtual media.

It makes sense that virtual interfaces would disrupt the exchange of social cues. After all, it is nearly impossible to make eye contact in a Zoom meeting; in order to look directly at your partner, you need to look into the camera where you cannot see your partner's expressions and reactions. Perhaps current virtual technology limits our ability to detect more subtle facial movements. Plus, the downward angle of the typical webcam may distort the visual information that we are able to glean over virtual encounters. Face-to-face meetings, on the other hand, offer a direct line of sight that allows for optimal exchange of subtle social cues rooted in the eyes and facial expressions.

Key findings:
  • Zoom meetings are less stimulating for the brain than face-to-face interactions. A study by Yale University found that brain activity associated with social processing is lower during Zoom calls compared to in-person conversations.
  • Reduced social cues on Zoom lead to increased cognitive effort. The lack of subtle nonverbal cues, like facial expressions and body language, makes it harder to read others and understand their intentions on Zoom. This requires the brain to work harder to compensate.
  • Constant video calls can be mentally taxing. Studies have shown that back-to-back Zoom meetings can increase stress and fatigue. This is likely due to the cognitive demands of processing visual information and the constant pressure to be "on."
  • Be mindful of Zoom fatigue. Schedule breaks between meetings and allow time for your brain to recover.
  • Use Zoom strategically. Don't use Zoom for every meeting or interaction. When possible, opt for face-to-face conversations.
  • Enhance social cues on Zoom. Use good lighting and a clear webcam to make it easier for others to see your face and expressions. Use gestures and nonverbal cues to communicate more effectively.