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Zoom Fatigue: Nine Curated Explanations

· behavioral science,coronavirus

Do you want to impress your friends with your knowledge of Zoom fatigue? I did the homework for you...

Is Zoom fatigue real? Well, everyone has an opinion on it. I've seen explanations here and there through my reading of behavioral and decision science research, neuroscience podcasts, random encounters and some things I've noticed on my own.  

So, I decided to curate it all together, then simplify the explanations - for your enjoyment.

Here are 9 explanations for Zoom fatigue backed by science - some similar but different, explaining why virtual video communication is taxing on our brains, and ultimately unsustainable.

1) Delays in verbal responses

While virtual platforms have improved dramatically in the past few years, and you may not consciously notice, there is a delay.

When performing its best, when internet traffic is low, the delay is still 150 milliseconds. At other times, the delay is even longer. Platforms like Zoom have had to reduce visual quality in order to minimize the delay, but it can't possibly be perfectly in real-time.

You may not consciously notice, but your brain notices, and has to account for it.

Why does that matter? When we speak, our brains queue in to how the person we're speaking with is reacting; their facial expressions, eye movements, breathing.

When we speak to an audience, we're looking for signs of assurance - when we think what we're saying is interesting, funny, self-disparaging, etc., the brain is having to process the reactions and doesn't make assumptions for the delay.

That disconnect - the gap in how the brain is used to perceiving what is being said, requires more energy to process. Side effect - it can also reduce trust in the response.

*Johnson, Why Zoom meetings are so dissatisfying, The Economist, May 16th, 2020 edition

2) Resolving Conversational Interruptions

With even that split second delay, our brains require additional processing power to determine when it is our turn to speak - but what's worse is the process of resolving those conversational interruptions.

When we're truly face-to-face, one speaker is able to quickly yield to another.

On a video call, the process is more involved, the clash itself may take place for a longer period of time, and the process of resolving the talking-over-one-another becomes more difficult to repair. Thus, requiring more cognitive energy.

*Johnson, Why Zoom meetings are so dissatisfying, The Economist, May 16th, 2020 edition

3) Lack of eye contact

In a face-to-face conversation, our brain is wired to utilize actual eye contact as a primary means of processing information.

Actual eye contact!

In a virtual environment, actual eye contact is an impossibility.

To appear as though you’re actually making eye contact, you must be staring at the camera, not at the eyes of the attendee. So you're not making eye contact. It's a cognitive burden for the speaker, but also for you - I mean, doesn't it feel weird to be looking at the camera when someone is speaking to you?

When a conference is taking place with 3 or more people, it’s impossible to ascertain eye contact. Who is the person actually looking at, if anyone at all?

Our brain is in a constant, subconscious state of attempting to ascertain eye contact! And, you yourself are in a constant state of trying to determine where you should be looking. While you may naturally be looking at the person's eyes on your screen, part of you knows that is not coming across as actual eye contact for the individual or group of individuals you are on the virtual call with.

*Mason MF, Hood BM, Macrae CN. Look into my eyes: gaze direction and person memory. Memory. 2004;12:637-643.

*Nurmsoo E, Einav S, Hood BM. Best friends: children use mutual gaze to identify friendships in others. Dev Sci. 2012;15(3):417-425.

4) Lack of nonverbal queues

Humans evolved as social animals.

To summarize this one, along with the others, we have engrained signals that come with our social nature.

When we're in a visual environment, but are missing the correct engrained signals, it causes our brains to work harder to process and predict.

Our brains are trying to block out inconsistent verbal cues and only process the words. This is why a phone call is easier for our brains to process - the verbal cues and pressures do not exist.

These non-verbal cues have us assessing the posture and attention of the other individual. Those non-verbal assessments are used to prepare for our response adaptively for use in reciprocation.

It’s all happening in milliseconds.

On video, our brain struggles to capture and process things like postures, fidgeting, inhaling quickly in preparation to respond, facial expressions, eye movements.

Simply put, a video conversation requires more cognitive energy.

*Conty L, Dezecache G, et al. Early binding of gaze, gesture, and emotion: neural time course and correlates. J Neurosci. 2012;32(13):4531-4539.

*Schilbach L. Eye to eye, face to face and brain to brain: novel approaches to study the behavioral dynamics and neural mechanisms of social interactions. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. 2015;3:130-135.

5) Taking Turns

Imagine even sitting at a conference room table with a few people. Yes, I know, that hasn't happened for a year, but try to remember the last time.

It’s easy to ascertain who is getting ready to speak next, which limits conflict. Inhalations, leans forward, direct gazes, pushing of a notebook away, etc., are all signals.

Those signals are considerably rarer on a video conference, which makes turn taking considerably harder to predict in a Zoom environment with multiple attendees able to contribute.

When we’re in a group, our subconscious is processing the engagement and interactivity of those around us.

Our brain tries to do the same during a video call, but it’s impossible. It senses a larger number of people, but can’t assess what is happening around them.

*Varakin, D. A., Levin, D. T., & Fidler, R. (2004). Unseen and Unaware: Implications of Recent Research on Failures of Visual Awareness for Human-Computer Interface Design. Human-Computer Interaction, 19(4), 389–422.

*‘Zoom fatigue’ is real. Here’s why you’re feeling it, and what you can do about it.

6) Reduced Physical Activity

Physical activity has been correlated with an approximate 40% reduction in fatigue. Days full of videoconferencing results in less physical activity - even the process of getting up and walking to your next meeting has disappeared.

In other words, the more sedentary we become, the more fatigue we experience.

I know for me, when I have a day full of video calls, my Fitbit results are considerably lower. I try!

*Puetz TW. Physical activity and feeling of energy and fatigue. Sports Med. 2006;36:767-780.

7) Looking In The Mirror

If your own camera is on, it’s almost impossible not to notice yourself - as you're listening and as you're speaking.

We spend cognitive brain power ensuring we look ok, our background looks ok, we appear credible, approachable and professional.

Wouldn't it be exhausting to look at yourself in the mirror on-and-off for 30-60 minute increments? Well - that's what we're doing on a video call.

Being in a constant state of looking in the mirror directs your attention, is distracting, arousing, disconcerting, and requires more energy to block out.

*Dr. Jeffrey Hall, author of “Relating Through Technology,” quoted in Psychology Today.

*‘Zoom fatigue’ is real. Here’s why you’re feeling it, and what you can do about it.

8) Preferred Interpersonal Spaces, Proxemics & Peripersonal space

I got a little more nerdy with this one, partially because I had heard about it on a neuroscience podcast, and haven't been able to find which one. So - I did my own research.

Imagine you're at your favorite taco shop, and you're waiting in line. How do you know how much space to leave between yourself and the person in front of you? (I know, in the pandemic, it's 6-feet, but think about outside of the pandemic). You can feel it. And, the person in front of you can feel when you're too close.

When at Starbucks, and the next person in line is standing really far back, it probably makes you wonder, "are they in line?" You might even ask them..."are you in line?"

Proxemics is the study of human use of space and its effects on our behavior and social interaction, and specifically, “peripersonal space” is the space within reach of any limb of an individual.

When we're in a real face-to-face environment, our brains assess and gain comfort by being at a CORRECT distance from another during a conversation. For example, a “close-talker” makes us nervous. Someone who stays far away may also cause our brain to subconsciously try to determine why.

In a virtual environment, our brain is in a constant state of attempting to assess how far away the other individual is from us. If a person feels, subconsciously, too close to their camera, our brain requires more energy to maintain focus on the conversation. The person is miles away, yet feels like they're right in our grill! The same can be true if the person appears to be far away.

9) Satiation - Leading to Loneliness

You probably know what it means to be satiated: "The state produced by having had a specific need, such as hunger or thirst, fulfilled."

Semantic satiation is a "psychological phenomenon in which repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener, who then perceives the speech as repeated meaningless sounds."

Zoom satiation the overuse of video conferencing - to where you don't want to do it for anything you're not forced to.

Why does this matter? During this pandemic, video conferencing has been the primary means by which individuals are keeping connected to friends and family members. Now, due to this Zoom satiation, it's the last thing people want to do after a day of doing such calls for work.

As a result, it's creating personal anxiety through increased isolation from friends and family.

Our brains make up around 2% of our total body weight - yet responsible for the consumption of approximately 25% of our baseline energy budget!1 If even a couple of these explanations above are correct, there can be no doubt that the amount of energy required by the brain to handle all of the intricacies of a virtual video environment is creating fatigue.

Are we building up strength, like we do when we exercise? Too hard to tell. But if you're feeling off after a day of Zoom calls and need to sound smart explaining to someone why, just pick one, and fire away!

What do you think? Is Zoom fatigue real?

Are there explanations you've heard that I've missed?

Which ones are your favorite? Ok - maybe that's the wrong word...but which are you most experiencing and seeing?


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