The Neuroscience of Zoom Fatigue
Ever felt mentally exhausted following a virtual interaction?
During COVID-19, many of us have been increasingly reliant on videoconferencing systems for learning, working, and socializing. While these tools are great for helping us stay connected, it has also given rise to a phenomenon known as ‘zoom fatigue’. First described by Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson, ‘zoom fatigue’ refers to feelings of mental and physical exhaustion following virtual interactions .
Overall, ‘zoom fatigue’ can be attributed to an effort-reward imbalance. Virtual interactions use up more cognitive resources and require more effort, however we do not perceive them as more rewarding than in-person interactions . This imbalance eventually leads to feelings of fatigue . To explore this idea further, let’s zoom in to several features of virtual interactions.
You log into your first online class for the day and are greeted by the various faces of your classmates.
However, these virtual faces appear much larger and closer than in-person. Bailenson describes how we are all interacting with virtual others at distances equivalent to being 60cm away from another person . This distance is classified as ‘intimate’  and is usually only reserved for close friends and family members. If we aren’t emotionally close to these individuals, this closeness may indicate violations of person space. In response, the sympathetic nervous system may become activated, triggering a fight-flight-freeze response .
To make matters worse, faces as stimuli are super distracting, making it harder to concentrate on the task at hand. Faces reliably express various biological and social cues, and are therefore hard to ignore. There are even specialized brain regions dedicated to facial processing and recognition (e.g. the fusiform face area and the occipital face area ), and one study found that even neutral faces as distractors slowed down participants’ task completion .
All of this means that right from the outset, we start meetings feeling anxious and
Figure 1. Virtual Learning .
As you are listening to the class, your internet connection drops out for a few seconds and you miss out on a chunk of what’s being said.
Studies have shown that video communication increases cognitive load by providing more information to be interpreted . It also places a big demand on internet networks, making lags more common and requiring extra effort to fill in the gaps. There is additional effort required in perceiving and sending out nonverbal cues . For example, sideway glances may not mean the same online as they do in person and we may exaggerate nods or gestures to indicate agreement. The accumulation of all these cues may wear us out.
Figure 2. Photo of a woman with computer. Fatigue can be caused by the increased cognitive load of video communication .
The social reward
The teacher splits your class up into breakout rooms. You start discussing the topic but the conversation feels awkward and forced, eventually stalling as you all sit silently.
How does this play out in your brain? Research has found that the neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin (involved in attachment and social bonding) modulate dopaminergic pathways, meaning that we find social interactions rewarding in general . However the format of social interactions also plays a role - an fMRI study found that in-person interactions activate the brain’s reward processing regions (e.g. anterior cingulate cortex, ventral striatum, amygdala) more than virtual interactions .
This may be due to the lack of direct eye contact during virtual interactions. Under normal circumstances, shared gaze enhances social cognition and is linked to reward processing (increased ventral striatum activation) , allowing us to express intimacy, empathy, and likeability . However during virtual interactions it is difficult to have mutual gaze as looking at the camera means sacrificing the ability to look into other people’s eyes. This means that we do not get as much reward from eye contact as we normally would during in-person interactions.
Combined with research suggesting that audio or video delays of even 1.2 seconds lead to perceptions of decreased empathy and attentiveness , it is no wonder that we find virtual interactions less rewarding than live interactions.
Figure 3. Working Home. Research has found that audio or video delays and lack of eye contact is associated with decreased social cognition, empathy and attentiveness. This means individuals may find video interactions less rewarding than live ones .
The ease of multi-tasking
Bored from the class and lack of meaningful social connection, you end up becoming distracted. You half-heartedly pay attention while texting your friend, checking an unimportant email, and helping your sister with her homework.
All of this multitasking creates a sense of novelty. This in turn activates our dopaminergic system, meaning that we are effectively rewarded for losing focus . Our prefrontal cortex also has a novelty bias, making it more likely for us to seek out novelty in the face of boredom .
However, constant multitasking comes at a cost. There are increased neurocognitive demands in the frontoparietal control network and dorsal attention network  which are regions associated with task switching. One study found that heavy multitaskers had lower brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex - an area responsible for impulse control, decision-making, and empathy . This can lead to decreased productivity and feelings of fatigue.
Figure 4. Computer Work. Technology makes it easier to multi-task, which can result in feelings of fatigue .
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. For all the zoom fatigue we’ve experienced, we’ve also been able to have virtual birthdays, catch-ups, weddings, and funerals. Many organizations are also catching on to just how fatiguing virtual meetings can be, and have started designing platforms that replicate a more natural experience. This includes platforms such as gather.town, Mozilla Hubs, and Nottopia, which all incorporate avatars and elements of physical space. On an individual level, the first step to combating zoom fatigue may simply involve being more mindful of all the different ways in which virtual communication systems can place a strain on us.
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