‘Zoom fatigue’ taxes human brain; here’s why that happens

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Lily Goosens, Lamp writer

You might be feeling tired after overusing the technology, but that feeling is not merely a matter of tired eyes, a stiff neck, or an achy lower back. You can actually feel exhausted after spending too much time on these calls — leading to what some label “Zoom fatigue.”

The reason, says Dr. Brenda Hopkins, a licensed clinical psychologist at Memorial Behavioral Health, lies in the fact that communication over these programs isn’t in fact real-time. For educators and students specifically, so-called “synchronous” learning over a computer isn’t really all that synchronous – and it’s backed up by some pretty interesting brain science.

“Our brains are used to picking up body language and other cues, not to mention increases of dopamine, that are experienced during face-to-face communication,” explains Hopkins.

“On a video call, something is off, and our subconscious brain is reacting to that. Communication isn’t in real-time, there’s more biochemical bang for our buck during face-to-face contact because it offers a richer stream of social signals,” she added.

Despite high-speed internet connections, there’s a lag, maybe a millisecond delay and that can trigger the brain to look for ways to overcome that lack of synchrony. The brain begins to fatigue, causing one to feel tired, worried, or anxious.

At the end of 2019, roughly 10 million people in the United States attended meetings on Zoom. By May 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic shut the country down, usage had exploded to 30 million.

It’s not just the delay. Unsurprisingly, we get more out of in-person interactions.

The fact that most videoconferences frame only a person’s face eliminates access to many of these nonverbal cues, teachers especially value seeing their students’ reactions in real-time and being able to pick up on various subtle cues, micro-expressions, and body language that are more evident in a classroom setting.

Deborah Eaton, an English teacher at Springfield High School, has experienced Zoom fatigue.

“After the first week of Zoom classes, my eyes every single day were exhausted. I am using eye drops before bed in order to relax them at night as well as meditative exercises to get ready for the next day,” she said.

The optimistic view was that videoconferencing would for the most part be left behind as things returned to normal. But they haven’t. Ten months after the pandemic broke out, many educators continue to teach and interact with their students, parents, and colleagues via video conferencing software, either part of a hybrid model or full-time.

It should be no surprise that Zoom fatigue has and will continue to be a serious challenge for many of these educators.

Across the country, students like Noah Davis, a student at LLCC, are rethinking their choices in a world altered by the pandemic. Online instruction had a significant impact on Davis’ education which reflected most prominently in his grades. He felt online learning created a disconnect among lecturers, students, and information retention.

“I’m a passionate learner, but since the switch to remote learning, my morale, motivation, and engagement is now slim to none. To learn through a computer screen is more tedious than any in-classroom course I’ve ever experienced personally.” Davis said.

“It’s not immersive. It’s pretty disconnected. They’re just sending you information and you’re absorbing it all as best you can, kind of teaching yourself.” he added.

With so much economic uncertainty and little clarity as to whether most college campuses will open in the spring, a growing number of college students are rethinking their plans for next year. More students are choosing to stay closer to home and interest in gap years has spiked.

Fellow student, Jarod Robinson, expressed how “Zoom fatigue is real and it is here, it has been here for several months now, but it hasn’t been until recently that college students are feeling it harder now than before.”

“School in the spring didn’t even feel like such a hardship. We felt it as a temporary fix until we were allowed to return to our campuses in the fall,” he added.

Asking Melissa Franzen, a counselor here at LLCC, if she believed in Zoom fatigue, she chuckled and said “Absolutely, I think that it is even more difficult for the people that don’t typically sit in front of a computer, on a screen all day to be very stationary.”

“There is also the element that we’re not just looking at our screens, but we’re communicating interpersonally,” she added.

Humans are delicately attuned to each other’s complete presence. If a perfectly tuned conversation provides a ‘vision of sanity,’ then it is no wonder that an awkward, clunky, interrupted conversation provides the opposite. People are constantly interpreting others’ movements, timing, breaths, gazes, encouragement. It is humanity’s beautiful endowment.

So everyone is interpreting the misaligned gazes, the interrupted conversation, as stemming from the technology, not from the interlocutor. And that is a tale of human-technology-semiotic mismatch.