Feel drained after a year of Zoom meetings? There’s brain science behind that fatigue

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As you hit the red ‘leave’ button on your last video conference call of 2020 and shut your laptop, you rub your eyes and slump back in your chair.

You’re incredibly tired — perhaps more tired than this time in previous years — and primed for a break. And this feeling hasn’t been helped by sitting in front of your laptop in meetings all afternoon.

This year in particular has seen more people than ever communicating with colleagues (and family and friends) virtually instead of in the flesh.

At the peak of the Zoom boom, in April, the video conference software was used by 300 million meeting participants each day.

So why are meetings over video so damn tiring?

It’s not just you. There are neuroscientific reasons for feeling zonked from Zoom, spent after Skype or all tuckered out from Teams.

Video calls have only appeared recently in human history, and while our brain has evolved over the millennia to be pretty great at face-to-face communication, it’s less deft at processing virtual chats.

“But Bel,” I hear you say, “I can see and hear other people in video calls.

“Why should those meetings feel harder than real-life conversations?”

What it boils down to is your brain only has a certain amount of energy that it can draw on at any time.

Each additional task or complication that siphons off that fuel means there’s less in the tank to do other things until it’s replenished.

And when it comes to conversing, listening and talking are only part of the equation.

You also must understand what’s happening, think about what we’re going to say next, and chime in when appropriate — all the while being aware of distractions and trying not to look like a fool.

Stick this interaction onto a laptop screen, and it can all become a whole lot more difficult.

Why all the Zoom and gloom?

Let’s ignore, for a second, all the external factors that make video meetings just that little bit harder, such as unpredictable internet connections and that dog next door that won’t shut up, as well as general coronavirus anxiety.

Even when the internet gods are smiling on us, the quality of input information from a virtual meeting comes up short, says Philip Smith, who runs the Vision and Attention Laboratory at the University of Melbourne.

“We’re dealing with a speech signal that’s degraded relative to face-to-face speech, even with a good internet connection, so the cognitive load required to process or decode it is greater.”

This signal includes visual as well as audio information. That’s because we don’t just listen with our ears; much of what we understand comes from what we see.

And it turns out it’s not so easy to read a virtual room. Watching a person from their shoulders up means you miss out on loads of body language.

Plus if you’ve ever watched a movie or TV show where an actor’s mouth and their speech are out of sync, you know just how off-putting lags can be.

“In general, 100 milliseconds is the critical time period for us to experience things as synchronous or asynchronous,” Professor Smith says.

“So anything that occurs within about a 100-ms window is experienced as a unitary thing.

“And if you separate things by much more than 100 ms, you start to experience them as different and separated.”

Such latency issues are commonplace with video calls, and require your brain to work just that little bit harder to match what it sees with what it hears.

The information piped into your brain through your eyes can change what you hear, too.

A prime example of this is the McGurk effect, named for one of the pair of psychologists who wrote about the phenomenon in 1976.

“When talking to someone in a noisy cafe, we can rely on vision to help decode speech,” Professor Smith says.

But when people turn their camera off or are frozen on-screen, or your video conference gallery shows dozens of small, blurry faces, we don’t get that high-quality visual input that an in-person meeting provides.

To process what’s going on, your brain draws on more energy.

Of course, you’re usually not just passively listening to speakers in virtual meetings. Talking in turn requires high-level cognitive and social skills, sapping more of your brain’s resources.

How often have you forgotten you were on mute, or couldn’t be heard over the cacophony of 10 other people all speaking at once, and you missed your chance to chime in?

“What you feel is that the transitions are awkward and effortful to manage,” Professor Smith says.

And — you guessed it — your poor old grey matter needs to use energy to deal with that stilted turn-taking.

This list of reasons is by no means exhaustive (pun definitely intended). But as each demanding element of a video call depletes your energy supply before you have a chance to top up, you feel pooped.

Give yourself a break

Even when we emerge from the pandemic, it’s clear that more people will continue working from home.

And while they may not be as frequent as during lockdown periods, video calls are here to stay.

But there are a couple of things you can do to ease their burden on your brain.

If you regularly present to people over video, make life a little easier for your viewers by investing in good-quality gear, like a decent microphone.

And while it sounds incredibly obvious, Professor Smith suspects “the single biggest thing is to try and schedule your meetings so they’re not back to back and you actually have some recovery time”.

In his lab, where participants are put through cognitively demanding tasks, sessions never run for more than 40 minutes.

“Those tasks can be very fatiguing,” Professor Smith says.

“At the end of 40 minutes, that’s all people can do. Then they need to take a break.”

So now’s a chance to give your brain, eyes and ears a well-earned rest.

And when you dial into your first meeting of the new year, give yourself a break: both by recognising that the fatigue is real, and by having a snack with your afternoon cuppa.

Your brain will thank you for it.

By science reporter Belinda Smith (Original ABC Article)

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