Brain activity much lower using Zoom than during in-person conversations, study reveals

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Countless conversations occur between people every day, and each time you stop to chat with the mailman or run into an old friend at the local coffee shop, your brain engages in an intricate choreography of neural activity across regions of the mind which control social interactions. Interestingly, however, researchers from Yale University have found that the brain activity of two people conversing over virtual meetings like Zoom is actually quite different.

More specifically, Yale neuroscientist Joy Hirsch has discovered that neural signaling is substantially suppressed during online interactions compared to activity observed among those having face-to-face conversations.

“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,” says Hirsch, the Elizabeth Mears and House Jameson Professor of Psychiatry, a professor of comparative medicine and neuroscience, and senior author of the study, in a university release. “Zoom appears to be an impoverished social communication system relative to in-person conditions.”

Social interactions, of course, are an absolute cornerstone of all human societies and cultures. Human beings crave social activity, and our brains are finely tuned to process dynamic facial cues (a primary source of social information) during in-person encounters. While prior studies have used imaging tools to track brain activity during these interactions, most of those earlier projects only focused on single individuals. This time around, Prof. Hirsch’s lab developed a unique suite of neuroimaging technologies that allowed them to analyze real-time interactions between two individuals in a natural setting.

Friends or coworkers having a conversation
(Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels)

To reach these findings, the research team recorded the neural system responses in individuals engaged in live, two-person interactions, as well as the responses seen in two-person conversations on Zoom. For reference, Zoom is a popular video conferencing platform used by millions of Americans on a daily basis.

This approach led to the observation that the strength of neural signaling was dramatically lower on Zoom relative to in-person conversations. The increased neural activity seen among those participating in face-to-face conversations was associated with increased gaze time and increased pupil diameters – suggesting an uptick in arousal in the two brains. Moreover, more robust EEG activity during in-person interactions was characteristic of enhanced face processing ability.

Study authors also found further coordinated neural activity between the brains of individuals conversing in person. This indicates, they explain, an increase in reciprocal exchanges of social cues between interacting partners.

“Overall, the dynamic and natural social interactions that occur spontaneously during in-person interactions appear to be less apparent or absent during Zoom encounters,” Prof. Hirsch adds. “This is a really robust effect.”

All in all, researchers say their work highlights just how important live, face-to-face interactions are to natural human social behaviors.

“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,” the professor concludes.

The study is published in the journal Imaging Neuroscience.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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