A new study reveals that neural signals associated with social interactions are significantly reduced during video calls compared to face-to-face conversations. The complex choreography of brain activity observed in direct communication is nearly absent during screen-based discussions. This finding emphasizes the value of sincere social interactions, which our brains naturally prefer.
As humans are inherently social, our brains are optimized to process and assimilate real interactions with other people. Besides verbal communication, these interactions are punctuated with subtle cues such as facial signals. Our brains are designed to analyze even the slightest facial movements, including raised eyebrows, frowns, smiles, eye expressiveness, eyelid movements, and more. The reciprocal and spontaneous interpretation of these facial dynamics is an essential social skill for building connections between individuals.
While video conferencing platforms are immensely helpful for remote work and connecting people who are far apart, scientists are now questioning how our brains react to them. Previous research has suggested that there is a fundamental difference between real and virtual interactions. For instance, it has been proposed that real faces activate lateral and dorsoparietal systems in the human brain that are not activated by virtual faces.
“The comparison between ‘online’ and ‘face-to-face’ presents a new paradigm for neuroscience questions,” explain the researchers from the University of Yale in the new study. They suggest that the difference between virtual and real interaction is related to how we make eye contact. Despite the current availability of high-definition cameras, webcams do not facilitate eye contact. Looking into the camera so that our conversation partner can see our eyes prevents us from focusing on the screen and their eyes. If our field of vision is directed towards the screen, it gives the impression that we are not looking into their eyes. The new study aims to decrypt how our brain interprets this contrast.
Significantly Reduced Neurosocial Signals
In the framework of the study, published in the journal Imaging Neuroscience, 28 healthy adults with no visual impairments were recruited to engage in both direct and virtual conversations. The Zoom video conferencing platform was used due to its worldwide popularity. To make unbiased comparisons of social factors (such as biases and lack of familiarity), the same interlocutors were used in each experiment. During the conversations, the volunteers’ brain activity was recorded in real-time using near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) and electroencephalography (EEG). Eye tracking devices were also applied.
It’s important to note that previous studies have attempted to capture these differences using imaging tools. However, most of them focused on isolated individuals in laboratory conditions, which may not necessarily reflect the subtle variations in everyday communication between two people.
The experts in the new study were surprised to find that the strength of neural signals specific to social interactions was significantly reduced during Zoom conversations. “Overall, dynamic and natural social interactions that occur spontaneously during in-person interactions appear less apparent or absent during Zoom meetings,” explains the study’s co-lead author, Joy Hirsch, from the University of Yale. “This is a really robust effect,” she adds.
For participants engaged in face-to-face conversations, a complex choreography of neuronal activity in the brain areas governing social interactions was observed. The signals were notably correlated with increased gaze time and pronounced pupil dilation, indicating heightened brain excitement. “Online representations of faces, at least with current technology, do not have the same privileged access to the neural social circuits in the brain that are typical of reality,” Hirsch believes.
Furthermore, direct interaction was associated with a higher capacity to synchronize neuronal activities. In other words, people communicating face-to-face seemed to coordinate their brain signals, suggesting increased mutual exchange of social cues. “In this study we find that the social systems of the human brain are more active during real live in-person encounters than on Zoom,” explains Hirsch. “Zoom appears to be an impoverished social communication system relative to in-person conditions,” she adds.
However, it’s important to note that the study involved a relatively small sample of participants and may not reflect the brain responses of larger populations. Some individuals or cultures, for example, may not appreciate intense eye contact. Nevertheless, these results highlight the importance of prioritizing in-person interactions over virtual ones.