Technology appears to be interfering with communication, says study

MONTREAL — Communication between two people isn’t as effective when it’s done through intermediary technology, a Montreal researcher noted, and it may even require a greater concentration effort from the brain.

This could explain “zoom fatigue,” that uneasiness many have felt during the pandemic after a full day of chatting with co-workers online.

“Our results illustrate the price we pay for the technology,” the authors write in the journal NeuroImage.

Guillaume Dumas, a researcher from the University of Montreal and CHU Sainte-Justine, and his colleagues used an electroencephalogram to study the brains of mothers and their teens conversing in person, and then through intermediary technology. The research showed that the participants’ brains did not respond in the same way at all.

The researchers found that the participants’ brains “synchronized” when they were near each other, which didn’t happen when chatting over a screen. More specifically, they were able to measure that nine key connections connected the two brains during the face-to-face conversation, compared to just one during the virtual conversation.

It is believed that these bonds might allow interlocutors to communicate their emotional state or non-verbal cues to their partner.

“It’s the old adage of being on the same wavelength,” said Dumas, who first discussed his work with The Canadian Press. And in this study, we show precisely that we’re less on the same wavelength via video conferencing than when we’re face-to-face. Suddenly we are paying a little price for using technology to communicate, by having communication that is perhaps of lower quality and less authentic than what our brains are used to, what it was made for.

Our brains are the result of tens of thousands of years of evolution, he recalled. Compared to the evolution of technology, the biological evolution of our brains is relatively slow, and so we still have relatively the same brains as our Homo sapiens ancestors did ten or twenty thousand years ago.

Consequently, he continues, our brains are configured to manage real-time, face-to-face interactions and communication with others.

The researchers found that the front region of the mother’s brain was connected to each of the regions measured in the child’s brain. The frontal cortex is associated with higher social functions, including social cognition and decision-making in a social context.

Face-to-face communication, Dumas said, makes it easier to “convey and absorb non-verbal cues, perhaps anticipating what the other is going to say, understanding innuendos or things that are more subtle in terms of communication,” which is much more difficult in the presence of one two-dimensional image.

“From an attention point of view, we need to push a little harder,” said Mr. Dumas. It’s much more complicated to maintain communication, a bit like talking on the phone and there’s a lot of noise. We don’t find it comfortable that you have to expend a lot more energy, a lot more effort, to communicate with the other person.

Several factors have been suggested to explain “zoom fatigue,” including delayed social feedback, difficulty sustaining attention, people not showing their faces, postural issues, or responses that come slowly due to microphones being turned off.

This new study adds reduced brain synchronization to that list.

“In the end, we might conclude that a 15-minute in-person meeting is more effective than an hour-long online meeting,” Dumas said.

Personal Interactions

This study, the researchers write, suggests that the human brain needs face-to-face interactions in order to develop properly. This therefore raises concerns about the development of empathy and collaboration among young people who are heavy consumers of technology-enabled communication, especially after two years of the pandemic, in which much of their lives have shifted online.

“There are many experiments in neuroscience that show that there are so-called critical periods, ie periods that are critical for certain learning,” underlined Mr. Dumas. And if we go beyond those periods (…), it becomes much more complicated to catch up than if we had learned the thing at the right moment of development.

As examples he cites the acquisition of social norms, acceptance from and by others, communication and interaction with others that occur during adolescence.

Technology-enabled communication, he continues, offers opportunities for things that were more difficult in a traditional way of interacting – like cyberbullying.

“People who would not have actually behaved have much less difficulty engaging in toxic behavior online,” said Mr. Dumas. Based on the literature and our level of knowledge, it would make perfect sense that disembodiment of the other would facilitate these toxic behaviors.

Technology-enabled communications can offer great benefits, Mr. Dumas pointed out, allowing certain population groups to receive services that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. However, there are many examples of situations where suboptimal virtual communication could be problematic. It is therefore questionable whether online psychotherapy is as effective as in-person one, he stressed.

The same applies to distance learning. In a study published in 2021, undergraduate students rated distance learning between “somewhat difficult” and “extremely difficult”.

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