You’re Not Alone: Zoom Fatigue Is Real

The manner in which social cues are perceived through Zoom impairs the brain’s ability to process information and creates weak relationships with other people. This creates a low reward, high-cost analysis of Zoom meetings, triggering neurological pathways that create feelings of fatigue rather than alertness.

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By Cadence Li

As we approach our one-year “quarantine-versary” of the pandemic, many students at Stuyvesant and across the country are experiencing the detrimental effects of using Zoom and other video-calling interfaces for extended periods of time. After five hours of online classes a day, many students find themselves ready to take a nap and call it a day. Commonly known as “Zoom fatigue,” this mental exhaustion describes the tiredness, burnout, or worry associated with overusing virtual platforms of communication, attributed not to students being lazy but to the way the brain processes social interactions.

Mental fatigue can be explained through the rewards-cost tradeoff that occurs in the brain. Before engaging in any activity, a tradeoff is made between the predicted rewards and costs of participating in the activity. Even the decision to open your laptop to begin your day is made on the basis of these unconscious estimates to maximize rewards and minimize costs. The dopaminergic pathway, essential to translate a high-rewards low-cost situation, is activated. Specifically, the mesolimbic dopamine pathway begins at the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a dopamine-rich area covering part of the midbrain that projects dopaminergic action potentials to another area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens (NAc). It is in the NAc where dopamine primarily mediates feelings of pleasure and reward. Whenever a person encounters rewarding or pleasurable stimuli, dopamine is released and sends signals from the VTA to the NAc, creating positive feelings that reinforce that behavior. Overall, the activation of the dopaminergic pathways triggers subjective alertness, energy, and motivation. Social interactions are very much associated with reward circuits and oxytocin, the hormone involved in social bonding which regulates the dopaminergic pathway. Furthermore, the manner in which social interaction occurs is vital to the process of the rewards circuit. For example, MRI data reveals that live face-to-face interaction activates areas of the brain associated with rewards more than viewing recordings. Thus, more active social interaction is associated with perceived rewards, activating the neurological pathways modulating feelings of alertness rather than fatigue.

That’s where the problem lies with Zoom and other video-calling interfaces. The social interaction is not active enough to trigger the dopaminergic pathway because much of communication is actually unconscious and nonverbal. The brain uses various social cues in an interaction to understand what is being conveyed and what response is needed. A short inhale before someone begins to speak, crossing of the legs, and fidgeting of the hands are examples of small but important gestures in interpreting social interactions. However, over Zoom, the brain rarely receives the social cues it needs to be comfortable in a social interaction. Even without technology or internet issues, the brain’s interpretation of social interactions is significantly impaired by more than a 100 milliseconds delay; unfortunately, Zoom aims for a lag of 150 milliseconds. These audio delays are subconsciously interpreted by the user as the speaker’s inability to quickly form affirmative and confident thoughts. Moreover, a human’s primitive psychology nurtures the idea that the simpler something is to understand, the easier it is to believe. Therefore, those with technological issues that impair their audio are identified as less trustworthy because they’re harder to understand. These delays create feelings of uncertainty and unfamiliarity, decreasing the reward perceived.

Over Zoom, most people are framed from the shoulders up, preventing others from viewing body language or hand gestures. Poor video quality can impair the comprehension of minute facial expressions. This leaves users dependent on eye contact and attention to words to interact with others. Evidence shows that eye contact is vital to improving the connection between two people, resulting in faster responses, improved memorization of faces, and increased likeability. However, eye contact on Zoom is often compromised because people tend to look at the center of their screen rather than the camera. Speaker view is another issue because it deprives one of the ability to see and recognize the behavior of others, which is what the peripheral vision would take care of in person. On the other hand, gallery view causes its own issues as it overwhelms the brain with multiple people and sources of information to decode, leaving it unable to process information properly. The extended split in attention creates a peculiar sense of feeling drained while having accomplished nothing. The brain is simultaneously overwhelmed by unfamiliar excess stimuli and hyperfocused on searching for nonverbal cues.

Unable to recognize clear social cues, the brain has to compensate with extra cognitive and emotional effort, leaving Zoom with a low-reward, high-cost analysis. This interpretation results in a failure to release the oxytocin necessary to trigger the dopaminergic pathway and other neurological pathways associated with reward, which in turn regulates pathways in a manner that causes fatigue rather than alertness.

However, using Zoom has been helpful for some people with developmental disabilities, like autism. While some autistic people find it difficult to determine when to talk during in-person conversations, the lag on Zoom may make it easier for them to gauge this. Moreover, Zoom’s inability to host parallel conversations in one room makes the environment more comfortable for those who are easily overwhelmed by multiple people talking. Yet, since there is a spectrum of autistic issues, some may report struggles with video chatting as it can overwhelm them with sensory triggers like loud noise and bright lights.

Nonetheless, there are activities that people can do to relieve some of this fatigue. Avoid multitasking while on Zoom. Switching between tasks tires out the brain and costs you 40 percent of what could have been productive time. Reduce on-screen stimuli by hiding your face from view. People tend to frequently look at themselves during Zoom, whether it's to make sure they look engaged or to check if others can see that pimple on their chin, but doing this becomes taxing on the brain. Take a break from screen time when possible. You can do this during class simply by looking away from your screen for a few seconds occasionally or by making time for breaks between classes. Try talking to someone in your household for a couple of minutes. Even fighting with your sibling over who gets to use the bathroom works. Practice mindfulness, meditation, and yoga to re-energize your body. Exploring alternative ways to psychologically improve your perceived reward can be a therapeutic approach towards Zoom fatigue and can improve your pandemic lifestyle as a whole.