Scientists have discovered that humans may have different brain pathways for looking at real things and representations. They took a look at what happens in your brain during a Zoom meeting.
Brains Are Less Active During Zoom Calls
Scientists at Yale tested the difference in brain activity between in-person encounters and Zoom interactions. They found that the social circuits of our brains are much more active when we are looking at the real thing compared to looking at a representation of a face on a screen.
Test Subjects Sat Awkwardly, Just Like Real Zoom Meeting Participants
Test subjects in this study were asked to sit still, minimize head movements, and maintain a neutral expression. Anyone who has sat stiffly on a formal Zoom call, trying not to be weird, will certainly recognize this stance.
Brains Were More Active When Subjects Were Face-To-Face
When the test subjects sat down face-to-face and gazed through the high-tech glass, they spent longer looking directly at each other, and their brains were much more active in processing social information.
What Makes Zoom Calls More Difficult?
Direct gaze is difficult in a Zoom meeting, as your partner doesn’t see you “making eye contact” unless you are staring at your camera. Unfortunately, you can’t see your partner’s reaction in that moment, so the usual exchange of social cues is disrupted.
Social Circuits of Our Brains Respond Differently to Screens
Does going eyeball-to-eyeball in a meeting really matter? Apparently, the answer is yes, at least according to another study. At a university in Finland, scientists compared the brains of people who were looking at a picture versus making eye contact in real time, then looking at a person who is not looking back. The difference was clear: our brains light up when we know someone is looking right at us.
Webcams Leave Us Guessing
Webcams in Zoom calls make it difficult to see whether we are being observed, so our social circuits don’t know when to leap into action. When we look at the screen, our partner could be looking at the camera, looking at our face on the screen, or possibly completing a Sudoku puzzle.
Our Brains in Digital Overload
In addition to the awkwardness of broken eye contact, Zoom conversations also include a lot of extra information we don’t usually get during an in-person conversation. We can easily be distracted by other windows, notifications, timers, or the camera switching from speaker to speaker.
Small Spaces, Big Distractions
Our brains are also trying to cope with blurry or artificial backgrounds, which may or may not be erasing part of someone’s head. In fact, any background can be distracting simply because we are looking at a small section of something unfamiliar.
Decoding Non-verbal Cues From Afar
Zoom meetings create a little bubble of communication, but it’s tough to communicate when you don’t know what else your partner might be hearing or seeing. Did your co-worker just wince? Was it something you said, or did their toddler just knock over a coffee mug, out of view of the camera?
Webcams and the Uncomfortable Truth
“Normal” social interaction is a bit difficult when a webcam is sending you images of your own grumpy resting face, the dark circles under your eyes, or the overflowing hamper of laundry you forgot to move out of the way.
Is a Messy Visual Worse Than No Screen at All?
This study did not compare Zoom meetings to regular phone calls, so we still don’t know. How well do our brains process social information through sound alone?
Zoom’s Silver-Lining in a Diverse World
Zoom conversations may disrupt the usual social channels by blocking direct eye contact, but this could be good news for some. For instance, not everyone thrives on eyeball-to-eyeball exchanges. Indirect gaze is more comfortable for some Autistic people, and is considered more polite in many parts of the world.
Making the Most of the Inevitable Awkwardness
Zoom conversations can certainly be awkward, but they’re not going away anytime soon, so invite your cat and embrace meeting in the comfort of your pajama pants, as much as you can.
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