Ever waved goodbye on Zoom and felt super awkward?
That might be because your brain doesn't process Zoom conversations the same way as face-to-face conversations, new research reveals, even though you are talking to a real person.
The findings from the study at Yale University highlight how important in-person communication is to how we naturally interact with others.
"The social systems of the human brain are more active during real live in-person encounters than on Zoom," says neuroscientist Joy Hirsch, senior author of the published paper.
"Online representations of faces, at least with current technology, do not have the same 'privileged access' to social neural circuitry in the brain that is typical of the real thing."
According to Hirsch and her colleagues, most previous studies that used neuroimaging to record brain activity during social interactions involved individual people rather than pairs.
Here, the researchers compared how two people interacted with each other in real time. The participants were 28 healthy adults without vision impairments and included various ages, genders, and ethnicities.
Hirsch and team used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), electroencephalography (EEG), and eye trackers, to carefully record brain and eye activity when people were talking to each other.
They compared the results of pairs taking part in live face-to-face conversations to those of Zoom users having video chats on the popular platform. To allow comparison without social factors like biases or familiarity changing, the conversation partners stayed the same and each pair completed the same tasks during the conversations.
Compared with Zoom interactions, face-to-face discussions coincided with greater increases in brain signaling in a critical area called the dorsal-parietal region.
Specifically, when people talked to each other face-to-face, brain wave activity showed theta oscillations, which are linked to better face processing. Activity in brain regions associated with sensory processing and spatial perception also indicated more contrast observed in real-life faces, and eye tracking showed longer eye contact periods.
"Pupil diameters were generally larger for in-person faces than for virtual faces suggesting increased arousal for in-person faces," the team writes. "In addition, the magnitudes of the pupil responses were reciprocated by partners."
Brain scans of people having face-to-face conversations revealed higher levels of synchronized neural activity, which the researchers interpret as a sign of increased mutual exchange of social cues.
"Overall, the dynamic and natural social interactions that occur spontaneously during in-person interactions appear to be less apparent or absent during Zoom encounters," Hirsch explains. "This is a really robust effect."
What sets face-to-face interactions apart from virtual ones is the way we look at each other, and technological limitations may be at the root of the difference.
Even with today's high resolution cameras, webcams make eye contact difficult. Looking at the camera so our partner can see our eyes prevents us from focusing on the screen and their eyes, but if we look at the screen, it looks to our partner like we are looking below their line of sight.
The study participants were quite diverse, though a larger sample may provide broader information. Not all of us thrive on interaction or process faces the same way; some find eye contact deeply stressful.
Social interaction is important, and us humans are social creatures at our core, the team says, with brains adapted to process the dynamic facial cues we encounter in everyday interactions with other people.
Hirsh concludes: "Zoom appears to be an impoverished social communication system relative to in-person conditions."
The study has been published in Imaging Neuroscience.