Technology appears to be disrupting communication, study says

MONTREAL — Communication between two individuals is not as effective if it is done by interposed technology, a Montreal researcher noted, and may even require a greater effort of concentration from the brain.

This could explain “Zoom fatigue”, the discomfort many have felt during the pandemic after a full day of online chatting with colleagues.

“Our results clearly illustrate the price we pay for the technology,” the authors write in the medical journal NeuroImage.

Guillaume Dumas, a researcher from the University of Montreal and CHU Sainte-Justine, and his colleagues used an electroencephalogram to examine the brains of mothers and their teenagers who spoke in person, then by inserted technology. The study showed that the participants’ brains did not react in the same way at all.

The researchers found that the participants’ brains “synchronized” when they were in each other’s presence, which did not happen when they chatted through a screen. More specifically, they were able to measure that nine important links united the two brains during the in-person conversation, compared to just one during the virtual conversation.

It is believed that these bonds could allow the interlocutors to communicate their emotional state or non-verbal signals to their partner.

“It’s the old adage of being on the same wavelength,” said Dumas, who discussed his work first with The Canadian Press. And in this study we show that we are precisely less on the same wavelength when we are at a video conference than when we are face to face. Suddenly, we pay a bit of the price for using technology to communicate by having a communication that may be of a lower quality and less authentic to what our brain is used to, to what it was made for.

Our brains are the result of tens of thousands of years of evolution, he recalled. Compared to the development of technology, the biological development of our brain is relatively slow, and therefore we still have relatively the same brain as our Homo sapiens ancestors ten or twenty thousand years ago.

Therefore, he continues, our brain is configured to manage interactions and communication with others in real time, face to face.

The researchers found that the frontal region of the mother’s brain was linked to each of the regions measured in the child’s brain. The frontal cortex is associated with higher social functions, including social cognition and decision making in a social context.

Personal communication, Dumas said, makes it easier to convey and pick up “non-verbal cues, perhaps anticipating what the other is going to say, understanding insinuations or things that are more subtle in terms of communication,” which is much more difficult in person of a two-dimensional image.

“We’re going to have to push a little more from an attention standpoint,” Mr. Dumas said. It is much more complicated to maintain communication, a bit like talking on the phone, and there is a lot of noise around. We feel that it is not nice that you have to use a lot more energy, a lot more effort to be able to communicate with the other person.

Several factors have been cited to explain “Zoom fatigue”, including delayed social feedback, difficulty maintaining attention, people not showing their faces, posture problems or reactions that are slow to come due to microphones being turned off.

This new study adds reduced brain synchronization to that list.

“We may end up concluding that a 15-minute in-person meeting is more effective than an hour-long online meeting,” Dumas said.

Personal interactions

This study, the researchers write, suggests that the human brain needs personal interactions to develop properly. This therefore raises concerns about the development of empathy and cooperation among young people who are heavy consumers of technology-supported communication, especially after two years of the pandemic, where a large part of their lives has shifted online.

“There are lots of experiments in neuroscience that show that there are what are called critical periods, therefore periods that are critical for certain learning, Mr. Dumas emphasized. And if we go beyond these periods (… ) it becomes much more complicated to catch up with the thing than if we learned the thing at the right time of development.

He cites as examples the acquisition of social norms, acceptance of others and of others, communication and interaction with others, which occur during adolescence.

Technology-supported communication, he continues, provides opportunities for things that were more difficult in a traditional form of interaction – like cyberbullying.

“People who would not have acted out in real life have much less difficulty exhibiting toxic behavior on the Internet,” Mr. Dumas said. According to the literature and our state of knowledge, it would make complete sense that precisely the offset of the other facilitates this toxic behavior.

Technology-assisted communication can bring great benefits, Mr. Dumas pointed out, allowing certain populations to obtain services that would otherwise be unavailable to them. But there are many examples of situations where less than optimal virtual communication can be problematic. It is therefore doubtful whether online psychotherapy is as effective as in person, he pointed out.

The same applies to distance learning. In a survey published in 2021, university students rated distance learning as ranging between “somewhat difficult” and “extremely difficult”.

Leave a Comment