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Scientists Find Startling Disparities in Brain Activity Between Zoom and Reality


Zooming In on Our Brains on Zoom

A recent study found that in-person conversations lead to more pronounced neural activity than Zoom conversations, emphasizing the neurological significance of face-to-face interactions in social behaviors. Credit: Image created with generative AI (Michael S. Helfenbein)

A recent study discovered that neural activity during online interactions is significantly reduced compared to when people converse face-to-face.

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When Yale neuroscientist Joy Hirsch used advanced imaging tools to monitor brain activity between two individuals engaged in conversation in real-time, she discovered an intricate choreography of neural activity in areas of the brain that govern social interactions. However, when she conducted similar tests using the popular video conferencing tool Zoom, she observed a much different neurological landscape.

Neural signaling during online exchanges was substantially suppressed compared to activity observed in those having face-to-face conversations, researchers found.

The findings were recently published in the journal Imaging Neuroscience.

Zoom vs. In-Person: A Comparative Study

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

Social interactions are the cornerstone of all human societies, and our brains are finely tuned to process dynamic facial cues (a primary source of social information) during real in-person encounters, researchers say. While most previous research using imaging tools to track brain activity during these interactions has involved single individuals, Hirsch’s lab developed a unique suite of neuroimaging technologies that allows them to study, in real-time, interactions between two people in natural settings.

Findings and Implications

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For the new study, Hirsch’s team recorded the neural system responses in individuals engaged in live, two-person interactions, and in those involved in two-person conversations on Zoom, the popular video conferencing platform now used by millions of Americans daily.

They found that the strength of neural signaling was dramatically reduced on Zoom relative to “in-person” conversations. Increased activity among those participating in face-to-face conversations was associated with increased gaze time and increased pupil diameters, suggestive of increased arousal in the two brains. Increased EEG activity during in-person interactions was characteristic of enhanced face processing ability, researchers said.

In addition, the researchers found more coordinated neural activity between the brains of individuals conversing in person, which suggests an increase in reciprocal exchanges of social cues between the 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,” Hirsch said. “This is a really robust effect.”

These findings illustrate how important live, face-to-face interactions are to our natural social behaviors, Hirsch said. 

“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,” she said.

Reference: “Separable Processes for Live “In-Person” and Live “Zoom-like” Faces” by Nan Zhao, Xian Zhang, J. Adam Noah, Mark Tiede and Joy Hirsch, 25 October 2023, Imaging Neuroscience.
DOI: 10.1162/imag_a_00027

Other co-authors, all from Yale, are Nan Zhao, Xian Zhang, J. Adam Noah, and Mark Tiede.

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