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The One-Question Interview: Your Brain on Zoom

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Stephen Benning
Photo Courtesy UNLV

What does your gray matter think of socially distanced human connection?

Stephen Benning, a UNLV psychology professor, directs the school’s Psychophysiology of Emotion and Personality laboratory, which looks at the intersection of emotional processes and bodily responses. Who better to query about the fluctuating satisfaction of online togetherness during quarantine?

 

Has modern communications technology, like Zoom, been a useful substitute for face-to-face interaction?

I would say it may have helped people maintain some kinds of social connections. However, it is unlikely to replace the satisfaction of physical presence in a lot of interactions.

One of the things that we have shown in our lab is that having your friends put their hand on your shoulder while you’re doing a stressful task makes people’s positive emotion go up and negative emotion go down. So there really is something about physical touch that helps people regulate their emotional states in a way that’s just not available at a distance.

There are basic perceptual reasons for this, too. When you think about how large a visual angle a person occupies when they’re sitting in front of you, it’s much larger than when they’re in a Zoom window, even at full screen. They take up more perceptual space. You can see more of their bodies and more of their fine movements than you might be able to discern over Zoom.

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The other thing about making connections online is the different latency in response that often comes up, especially when people are using wireless connections. The amount of lag between when someone says something, it gets transmitted, it gets represented on the computer, then transmitted through the speakers is not even constant. So our brains can’t really adjust to that technological lag. Whereas when people are sitting in front of us, it’s relatively easy to process what they’re saying. I think a lot of this differential lag that we can’t predict or compensate for is part of what underlies Zoom fatigue.

The way I like to think about this is: Technically, we should be seeing the world upside down, based on how the optics of our eyes work. But through development our brains know that if we flip the picture, we’ll get a great representation of how the world works. And we are always seeing the world in exactly the same way, and our brain just knows, yes, I just do one flip. The auditory equivalent now is, you can’t just do one correction. The brain’s gotta be figuring out how many milliseconds something is delayed from when it is said to being received, and that delay can change. Imagine that in the visual domain, how your brain would just be flippin’ and floppin’ and get all staticky. You can see why Zoom fatigue challenges our brain’s ability to adapt to these dynamic and laggy connections.

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