(and is seriously wearing us out)
Here we are, in the spring of 2020, in an unprecedented time of “social isolation.” Many have turned to Zoom, Skype, FaceTime and other video chatting platforms to connect with individuals and groups. After the initial novelty and even excitement wore off for what seemed like it might be an amazing solution, many of us started realizing that a video-based meeting or training was sometimes waaaaay more exhausting than an in-person one, and a video-based “happy hour” gathering just wasn’t making us feel the connection we are longing for. We started wondering why video connection could feel a bit like eating Doritos instead of a nice full meal. So here are a few reasons why this might be:
1) We are sensual beings. We take in information from ALL our senses. On virtual chats, we have two of our senses activated, sight and sound, but not the others, especially smell and touch. We may not realize it, but smell plays a huge role in our emotional connection and processing. Sometimes we are aware of a certain smell (for example, my dad smoked a pipe when I was very small, and I am generally flooded with a sense of warmth and even connection when I encounter the scent of pipe tobacco), but often it may be smells we aren’t even aware of. Just like we all know “dogs smell fear,” humans have been shown to have a physiological response to the chemicals present in anxiety even if there is no discernable odor.
And of course, we are probably more aware that we long to touch each other. Touch is another powerful way we communicate—and again, we are often not even aware that (or how much) we are doing so. We touch to emphasize a point, to offer comfort, to say hello. And in doing so, we pick up and transmit emotional states. In fact, according to the Psychology Today article cited below, “touch may in fact be more versatile than voice, facial expression, and other modalities for expressing emotion.”
So in essence, video chatting cuts us off from two key ways we process our connection and knowledge of each other. That tends to make our brains feel less at ease, as they work harder to help us feel like we get what’s going on, which is of course, also more tiring.
2) The technology used in video platforms creates a somewhat artificial and distorted world. How many of us have struggled with where to look when we are on a call? It feels sort of odd to look at the camera, but that is the only way others feel like you are looking at them. If you DO try to look at the other person, it looks to them like you are looking somewhere else. However we do it, the felt sense of making eye contact is simply impossible. Information from another person’s eyes is dominantly processed in our right hemispheres, which is a part of the brain critical for a felt sense of empathy, creating meaning, and many of the ways we emotionally connect with each other and the world. Because this is so critical for understanding, our brains feel like we should be able to have it and we keep trying to find it. It’s like running a constant error message. Again, exhausting.
According to Why Zoom is Terrible (NYT, April 29, 2020)  the other distortions are “the way the video images are digitally encoded and decoded, altered and adjusted, patched and synthesized (which) introduces all kinds of artifacts: blocking, freezing, blurring, jerkiness and out-of-sync audio. These disruptions, some below our conscious awareness, confound perception and scramble subtle social cues. Our brains strain to fill in the gaps and make sense of the disorder, which makes us feel vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why.”
3) We are primed to make ourselves the primary focus of attention. Who hasn’t said to themselves or another lately that they aren’t used to looking at themselves so dammed much? And yet, it is hard to pull our eyes away from that image. This is probably NOT that we are all becoming terrible narcissists, but more related to our fundamental “prime directive” of survival. In the hierarchy of attention, we simply tend to think about ourselves first. This is a key way we stay safe and make sure we survive. When faced with images of ourselves it is difficult for our brains to pull away and focus attention somewhere else. There is a twofold impact on our energy to this – one is that it simply takes more energy to put our attention somewhere else when our own moving image is in front of us. The other is that when we do have our attention on ourselves, we are also primed to assess and want to correct, which results in a sort of multi-tasking during a meeting or gathering. (“Why did I wear that shirt? Man, I look tired. What the heck is my hair doing? etc.) Keeping our focus and attention on what is going on and NOT our own assessment of ourselves takes extra energy.
4) It just honestly takes more focus. In a normal meeting or gathering, nobody stares at each other intently for an hour or more. Our minds wander, we look around the room, in social situations we break off for tête-à-têtes or into smaller sub-groups. (For example, I recently did a virtual Easter gathering with my extended family, and there we all were, taking turns talking. This would never happen in real life. We tend to peel off into smaller groups based on interest. The three family computer geeks often put their heads together, speaking their own language, I like to hang out with my nieces talking fashion or getting updated on their lives, the older folks talk politics or current events.) Video platforms keep us more in present focus, especially when we are on camera. This is, in and of itself, not a bad thing, it just gets tiring to keep our focus brain network online without a break. I’m not taking about checking your phone while you’re in a meeting, but for all the reasons mentioned above, we are less relaxed because additional channels for processing information and emotions are not available.
So what do we do? Here are a few of my thoughts on the matter:
- It’s not the same and that’s ok. I think the overall answer is not to expect that video chatting will be the same as being in person. It’s not. It’s not as fulfilling. Think of it as a snack, not a meal. Nothing wrong with Doritos, you just can’t live on them. So this is a time we need to find all the other ways we can to fill our tanks.
- Limit the number of people in social video gatherings. In contrast to the large family Easter event, I have a regular weekly chat with four other wonderful women in Los Angeles, even though I live in Santa Fe. (I sometimes call it the New Mexico-California Friendship Exchange.) With five people, we can actually talk and hear from each other. I look forward to these evenings and value that the five of us have gotten even closer in this time.
- Just use the phone, especially one to one. On the phone, our voices are in each other’s ears, which feels more intimate. Our visual field is not concerned with ourselves, and we can go into more of a soft-focus visual state which is less exhausting.
- Don’t do back to back video meetings if you can help it, and pay attention to how many you can manage in a day. My exhaustion rate is about 3 hours MAX, and I can’t do that every day. Take video-free days if you can for recovery.
- Don’t be hard on yourself. It IS more tiring to work and connect this way. You’re not a weenie or a slacker. Your brain is responding as best you can to an extraordinary situation, and in addition to the extra effort and attention video calls demand, there are many other stresses having an impact. Be kind to yourself and others. This is hard.
Oh, and you might want to hide your own image on the video chat!
 See https://www.livescience.com/24578-humans-smell-fear.html for an example of one study. There have been many additional studies (on humans) looking at the smell of fear, disgust, and other emotions.