Video calls seemed an elegant solution to remote work, but they wear on the psyche in complicated ways. Article here
National Geographic, April 24, 2020.
The Lite lead-in video, a short news item (Video Calls Making you Feel Exhausted? It Could be “Zoom Fatigue”) introduces the work of Julia Sklar, who writes for National Geographic. Many of the contributors to this magazine, and no doubt many of our readers, are talking about how tiring it is to work and teach online. In her article, Sklar tells us why, regardless of what platform we use, virtual interactions can be very tough on the brain. One explanation is that we have to sit at attention with our eyes trained on the camera, trying not to let our eyes wander to look at all the other faces staring out at us from the screen gallery. Moreover, these disembodied faces are mostly silent because they’re muted, or they’re just trying not to make a noise in case their small window frame accidentally lights up, putting them in the spotlight. A second explanation is that the gallery view requires the brain to process many people simultaneously and this means that no one person, not even the speaker, comes through meaningfully.
Julia Sklar also says that group video conversations can be less collaborative than when conducted in the physical presence of others because we are unable to observe the behavior of all the participants we would otherwise monitor through our peripheral vision. The brain subconsciously seeks out non-verbal cues during communication but is frustrated by their absence in a Zoom meeting and grows weary with the split in attention that Zoom meetings demand.
Julia elaborates on the reasons why many of us find it hard to adapt to online meeting platforms. The main issue for her is that humans communicate even when they’re not talking. During a person-to-person conversation, the brain focuses on the words being spoken while simultaneously obtaining additional meaning from many non-verbal cues, such as whether our interlocutor is facing us or turned away, or if that person appears restless or distracted during the conversation, and when they inhale quickly signaling that they are about to interrupt. These cues provide a holistic picture of what is being communicated and allow us to respond appropriately. We evolved as social animals and understanding these cues comes naturally to most of us, enabling us to establish emotional intimacy. However, a typical video call impedes these innate abilities because a person can be seen only from the shoulders up. Hand gestures and other body language are not visible. And if the video quality is poor, minute facial expressions cannot be read either. We have to focus all our attention on the words spoken. It is unsurprising that we feel drained when deprived of these non-verbal cues.
By contrast, the recent shift to video calls has benefited people who have neurological difficulty with in-person exchanges, such as those with autism, who can become overwhelmed by multiple people talking at the same time. People with autism also tend to have difficulty understanding when it is their turn to speak in live conversations. It is thought that the frequent time lag between speakers on video calls may actually help some autistic people because during online meetings it is clear whose turn it is to talk.
To conclude on an upbeat note, Julia suggests that it is possible that Zoom fatigue will abate once people become more accustomed to this communication mode. We need to remember that we can turn off our camera and our microphone if we feel self-conscious or a need for privacy. And, if a meeting can be done by phone, try standing and/or walking at the same time, to stimulate blood circulation, improve creativity, and reduce stress. My own final suggestion is to switch off those screens as soon as you have finished and seek out a place with trees, or grass, or water to rest your weary eyes.
Amanda Gillis-Furutaka is not a digital native and is full of admiration for those who have mastered the wizardry of modern technology. While she appreciates all that can be accomplished through online meetings and lessons, she will be very glad to return to her natural habitat of a classroom.