Zoom Conversations vs In-Person: Brain Activity Tells a Different Tale

Summary: A new study reveals a significant disparity in neural activity during face-to-face conversations compared to Zoom interactions.

Using advanced neuroimaging, researchers observed suppressed neural signals during online exchanges. In contrast, in-person discussions presented heightened brain activity, with more coordinated neural responses between participants, emphasizing the richness of live social interactions.

The research suggests online faces, with present technology, don’t engage our social neural circuits as effectively.

Key Facts:

  1. The study employed unique neuroimaging technologies to monitor real-time brain activity during two-person interactions both in-person and on Zoom.
  2. In-person interactions exhibited increased neural activity linked with gaze time, pupil dilation, and enhanced face processing ability, reflecting greater arousal and social cue exchange.
  3. Current digital representations of faces don’t access the brain’s social neural pathways as effectively as live interactions.

Source: Yale

When Yale neuroscientist Joy Hirsch used sophisticated imaging tools to track in real time the brain activity of two people engaged in conversation, she discovered an intricate choreography of neural activity in areas of the brain that govern social interactions.

When she performed similar experiments with two people talking on Zoom, the ubiquitous video conferencing platform, she observed a much different neurological landscape.

Credit: Neuroscience News

Neural signaling during online exchanges was substantially suppressed compared to activity observed in those having face-to-face conversations, researchers found.

The findings were published Oct. 25 in the journal Imaging Neuroscience.

“In this study we find that the social systems of the human brain are more active during real live in-person encounters than on Zoom,” said Hirsch, the Elizabeth Mears and House Jameson Professor of Psychiatry, professor of comparative medicine and neuroscience, and senior author of the study.

“Zoom appears to be an impoverished social communication system relative to in-person conditions.”

Social interactions are the cornerstone of all human societies, and our brains are finely tuned to process dynamic facial cues (a primary source of social information) during real in-person encounters, researchers say.

While most previous research using imaging tools to track brain activity during these interactions has involved single individuals, Hirsch’s lab developed a unique suite of neuroimaging technologies that allows them to study, in real time, interactions between two people in natural settings.

For the new study, Hirsch’s team recorded the neural system responses in individuals engaged in live, two-person interactions, and in those involved in two-person conversations on Zoom, the popular video conferencing platformed now used by millions of Americans daily.

They found that the strength of neural signaling was dramatically reduced on Zoom relative to “in-person” conversations. Increased activity among those participating in face-to-face conversations were associated with increased gaze time and increased pupil diameters, suggestive of increased arousal in the two brains. Increased EEG activity during in-person interactions was characteristic of enhanced face processing ability, researchers said.

In addition, the researchers found more coordinated neural activity between the brains of individuals conversing in person, which suggests an increase in reciprocal exchanges of social cues between the interacting partners.

This shows women talking.
Social interactions are the cornerstone of all human societies, and our brains are finely tuned to process dynamic facial cues (a primary source of social information) during real in-person encounters, researchers say. Credit: Neuroscience News

“Overall, the dynamic and natural social interactions that occur spontaneously during in-person interactions appear to be less apparent or absent during Zoom encounters,” Hirsch said. “This is a really robust effect.”

These findings illustrate how important live, face-to-face interactions are to our natural social behaviors, Hirsch said. 

“Online representations of faces, at least with current technology, do not have the same ‘privileged access’ to social neural circuitry in the brain that is typical of the real thing,” she said.

Other co-authors, all from Yale, are Nan Zhao, Xian Zhang, J. Adam Noah, and Mark Tiede.

About this social neuroscience research news

Author: Bess Connolly
Source: Yale
Contact: Bess Connolly – Yale
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: The findings will appear in Imaging Neuroscience

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  1. If it were me, I would compare these kinds of conversations in speaking exams like the IELTS. Examiners try to don’t have a reaction and most of the time, they write something on their sheets.

  2. I agree with some of the comments above, it just sounds like common sense to me. Any from of communication other than face to face contact is surely far inferior.

    The only thing I strongly disagree with is that we should hope that technology will ever be able to match it. Technological interactions are the junk food of the communication world.

  3. It is wonderful that another study confirms that in-person interactions are much superior to flat-screen interactions on platforms such as Zoom and Teams. Let us never try to replace flat-screen technologies with real human interactions – all necessary to flourish as human beings. Our real-life interactions are enriched with all our senses, such as touch, real-eye-to-eye connections, and other social and emotional dimensions and interpretations. Don’t be fooled and degrade our humans by embracing more harmful types of flat-screen technologies and fake interactions to become more dumb and numb.

    1. I would assume this effect is due to the lack of eye to eye contact in virtual conversation due to the placment of the camera. Researchers should compare zoom conversations to in-person conversations without direct eye contact.

  4. Say you enter a discussion with someone you have a better grip on the topic being discussed: it is much less about what you say (in English, etc) and much more about demeanor and the biological process of analysing micro-expressions – to see if you have a good grip on the topic.

    If they start challenging you on something and you demonstrate a demeanor such that: 1. your expressions remain congruent with your discourse and 2. You demonstrate a state of calm and control – you have communicated to the recipient that what you are saying has legitimacy.

  5. Try this on blind people. I’v never seen a face. Zoom meetings are actually much less stressful for me because I can always tell who’s speaking. Zoom will identify the speaker for me as many times as I ask it to. By contrast, in-person meetings are just a bunch of anonymous voices. Imagine reading a transcript with most of the names missing. In addition to that, being a blind female in public means people silently stare at me or follow me. This is made even easier by all the noise in public urban settings. When on a Zoom meting at home, I know who’s around me, so I don’t have to be hyper-vigilant It’s much safer.

    1. your entire statement shows that your trust in the world is low and your sense of insecurity high.

  6. The comments alone prove this subject is in need of some serious research.
    As many have commented, there will be a difference if people with neurodivergences were used. But even without that, what would be the differences between age groups? And would gender make a difference (whether the participants were m/m, f/f/, m/f)? etc.
    Just as important as the participants is the subject being discussed by them – are they being tested when they are learning new information, having an friendly natter, engaged in serious debate?
    Are the two participants on equal footing – what is the dynamic between them? This too is bound to affect the outcome.
    All in all, the research as presented here is interesting but not useful – but it certainly shows that there is a need for a proper study with defined parameters; I’d be fascinated by the outcome of THAT research.

  7. As a psychotherapist, I would say that (obviously) there are notable differences between in-person and online work, and that this study doesn’t seem to take into consideration the ways we humans manage to form long-term relationships. I have been working remotely since the pandemic, now seeing a few people face-to-face. Over time, I would suggest that some of the lacks noted in virtual contacts may become less obvious. This is true, especially when we consider how we actually relate to one another, as much of my understanding of you takes place in my mental image of you, and vice versa.
    Do I get a more accurate reading of who you are what what you may need when we meet face-to-face? It’s true that right brain-to-right brain connection is much, much stronger when we meet in person. I can sense your emotional state more clearly when we share a physical space.
    At the same time, a virtual connection over time develops a necessary use of language, which is also vital. (The uses of silence, so important in face-to-face, are less useful in virtual contact.)
    As a clinician who is also interested in group work, my experience over time is that I don’t remember group experiences as clearly as I do in-person experiences — something that could be interesting to study. At the same time, group work is also supported by virtual contact, as group members can participate even when they can’t be physically present. And it’s an eye-opener to meet with people all over the world.
    I definitely agree with Peter, that the lack of eye-to-eye imagery is a problem!
    My personal preference is still working face-to-face, but I see a lot of benefit to virtual work, as well.
    And, by the way, Word Dog, I’m 77 years old, and I’m very much involved in this experience.

  8. As a sales manager/trainer and home-based solo business owner, this article is dead on. During COVID we developed a reliance on virtual meetings. They are a useful tool and the tech has improved to the point that it can sub for the real thing. However, getting back in the field face to face has been critical to my success this year. Without having conducted the research, but having performed the two actions repeatedly, I can confirm that in person client meetings are much more productive, informative, and impactful.

  9. I dance with an international groups of improvisational dancers weekly on Zoom. We’ve danced for almost four years now and were just discussing how we can often feel like we are in the same room with our partners. I would love to have a chance to dance while being a part of this research to see what the brain does relationally when creating relationships tied to creativity over so much time.

  10. I’m Kristina and I’m deaf I’m two way head communication invisible with my old man , and this annoying negativity actions is that I’m been controlling and command the line and attack by some kind of layer target ony head by his images control and I’m not happy that I can’t get this off myind anf this is definitely against my human rights on GitHub and im deaf and i was tookem ny durin my suspicion and confused why am i been bully and tricky in my mind it has been hitting target in my jead and hit my nerves to cost my air in my chest since last year on September, and i woulf appreciated if some will lean me to stop and closed tthis runtime on kitkat disabilities pls stop this its very urgent health issues thank you

  11. Ummm not sure why you needed to do a study on this… I mean I’m just some average person and definitely not a scientist and well to me and I guess I would have thought pretty much most the world this is common sense. But maybe I’m a lot smarter than I thought. Like wonder why every one got so depressed during COVID no HUMAN INTERACTION AND OUR HUMAN BODIES MINDS AND SOULS CRAVE HUMAN IN PERSON CONNECTION. THAT IS THE WAY WWE ARE Brought Into THIS WORLD 🤯🤯🤯🤯🤯🤯🤯🤯🤯🤯🤯🤯🤯🤯🤯🤯😂😂😂😂😂😁😁😁😄😃😀😛😋😛😋😛😋😛😛🙃🙃🙃🙃🙃🤭🤭🤭🤭🤭🤭🤭🤫🤫🤫🤫🤫🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔🤪🤪🤪🤪🤪🤪

    1. There is one reason for the disparity; the human senses. Face to face interactions probably stimulate the body, there for the brain in a way zoom call do not. Interactions with our environment, including people; Changes in an environment, will increase brain activity, as the brain processes the new information; we are being stimulated. Stimulation is good, even chaotic stimulation can be comforting to individuals adapted to it, the brain is forced to perform at high level, and even priorities how to focus, given the many stimulations. After all our stimulation we then sleep.

    2. Yes. Exactly. Stopped in to say “this is truly dumb”. Your brain responds differently to different stimuli, or we would fail to function. Of COURSE we recognize different social parameters at work on Zoom, so OF COURSE we respond differently. Dump this ‘finding’ into the bin with all the dumb studies that show, for example, “talking to friends releases Serotonin!”, “Hanging out with your grandmother causes an uptick in Dopamine!”. Yes, pleasant things are associated with pleasant internal neurochemical responses, and the reverse. ALSO: People’s ‘enjoyment center’ lights up when they eat food they like! ooooh! This is just the brain doing its most basic functions.

  12. The comments truly resonated. More neural activity may not be interpreted as a positive, and instead a negative, when you’re using energy for all of these interactions.

    There may also be a large difference in generations, and folks that are particularly comfortable with online communication. Please consider introverts versus extroverts and neurodivergency.

    Stop with the RTO propaganda, and propaganda to turn these unused offices into housing and actually improving the state of the US.

  13. As a high functioning introverted neurodivergent, with both autism and bipolar, I beg to differ from the research findings. Zoom meetings are less stressful and less stimulating.

    1. So You’re High-Functioning, Introverted, Neuro-Divergent, Bipolar & Autism.🤔
      1st, Autism Was Diagnosed In 1946 & Autism Spectrum Was Diagnosed In 1965. Those With Autism Aren’t High-Functioning & Zoom Meetings Do Harm. Neuro-Divergent Was 1st Categorized In The Late 1990’s. Bipolar & Introverted Aren’t Part Of The Neuro-Divergent Classification. The Neuro-Divergent Classification Which Has ASD, ADHD & Other Syndromes Are High-Functioning With High-Sensitivity & Zoom Meetings Do Harm. Bipolar Is A Behavioral Personality Disorder Which Requires Constant Medication & Isn’t Associated With With Most Of What You Claim To Have. Your Opinion Based On Your Research That You Claim Is Flawed & False. IMPPO, You Have Self-Diagnosed Yourself, Done Poor Research & Are Exploiting The Disability Community By Making Your Claims/Opinion.

  14. It doesn’t dictate the richness of social activity. It shows that the brain is more active because you are stuck there in person and have to actively control your actions. Where virtually you can mute yourself and watch a movie while they continue to talk about things that should have been an email.

    1. Zoom meeting should be compared to the preceding method of communication when presence was not possible: a phonecall! Then one sees that Zoom is a huge improvement. Maybe that’s why people are defending it in their comments.

    1. agree. But because of the relative “low” prevalence of neurodivergent individuals this specific research question will take ages to be designed and more importantly financed. Sadly.

    2. It would be more interesting to do it stratified by age. For autistics the issue is that our brains are not good at processing the stuff that’s going on with someone’s face/ body language and their tone at the same time as processing their words.

      So it would be the same that we don’t do well in zoom, but we’ll probably do equally bad as we do in person. Possibly even slightly worse because we can see ourselves in a box which is going to make it constantly feel like we’re being watched, which is going to make us think about what we’re doing with our face and our body instead of just processing the words.

    3. This. For someone like me with social anxiety, WFH has been a blessing and I definitely feel much less exhausted not having to deal with all these social cues.

  15. One big problem with Zoom – partly a harware problem – is that it doesn’t facilitate realtime eye contact. There are systems which do, either using two way mirrors to superimpose the camera and the dispaly, or using multiple cameras and image processing software. It would be interesting to replicate this experiment with such a “telepresence” system.

    1. The problem is that so many people don’t have their camera near the image of the person they are seeing on screen. If they did, there would be a more personal connection.

    2. You are right. Actually, the conclusion of the original scientific paper that was summarized here is revealing that the lack of direct visual contact could be responsible for most of the differences between live “in-person” and “on-line” conversation. As the authors put it, “on the one hand, if a participant looks at the camera so that their partner can see their eyes, they can no longer focus on the screen and specifically on their partner’s eyes. On the other hand, if they focus on the screen when the webcam is located above the screen, it appears to their partner that they are looking below their direct line of sight. These technological considerations that distinguish between the in-person and virtual visual faces may be related to the observed differences between the two presentation formats, and suggest future directions for investigation of mechanisms that underlie live face processes” (p. 16).

  16. I agree with another comment that this research and the results seems to be attempting to push the narrative that rto is what’s best. When it seems the data is neither complete nor actually stating any such thing. Whether one gets stimulus from in person meetings is irrelevant when people have meaningful face to face encounters without work having to be the outlet for it. So, it is basically irrelevant anyway.

    1. I can have an amazing, extraordinary time with lovely people, but with colleagues, there’s no or ‘yes,’ too. Why not, if we are on the same page? But generally, at least I can work from home, and I don’t want to go to the office; this is nuts. Life is not only about working, and I want my right, at least like this, to have a bit more work-life balance. A job is a job, and we pay taxes. Bad. I don’t want to see the walls and people in the darn office, just online. And then I hope I’ll have my own farm full of cattle, and I’ll be off a bit from modern slavery.

  17. This article makes perfect sense. I am a QEC coach, my initial training was face to face then Covid hit and it all went viral. I found there is benefits to both. I have just opened my practice and have a consultation space. Interesting the observation of the contact with the eyes, makes perfect sense.

  18. Social cues don’t belong in tech conversations. Men don’t rely on social cues the way women do. We are not the same.

    When using zoom I’m more concerned with information being leaked to the CCP since they’re behind zoom.

    1. You are absolutely right. What the author of this summary failed to report is the demographics of the study participants. From the original scientific article (Separable Processes for Live “In-Person” and Live “Zoom-like” Faces), “participants included 28 typically developed healthy adults (61% female; mean age 28.4±9.8 years; 93% right-handed (Oldfield, 1971) with self-reported normal or corrected-to-normal vision.” (p. 7)

      “Dyads were assigned in order of recruitment, and participants were either both strangers prior to the experiment or casually acquainted as classmates. Participants were not stratified further by affiliation or dyad gender mix. Six pairs were mixed gender, six pairs were female-female, and two pairs were male-male.” (p. 7)

      Moreover, contrary to what the summary says, the researchers refer to a “Zoom-like” setting where rather than a real Zoom setting. “Two 24-inch 16×9 monitors were placed between the participants at a viewing distance of 70 cm and matched to subtend the same visual angle as the real face. Each participant watched their partner’s face on a monitor in real time as their images were transmitted via cameras located above the monitors.”

  19. So..from a different perspective..zoom is less stressful & less demanding as witnessed by suppressed neural activity?
    And thus may be more appropriate with those experiencing certain neurological or mental health issues?
    I’d be curious to learn whether folks’ preferences for zoom/tech interactions over face-to-face interactions is indicative is indicative of hidden neurological/mental health issues or simply a biological attempt to be more efficient.

    1. Can people ever for once remember introverts exist and perhaps *they* may actually gain benefits from video while suffering detrimentally to in person? Society uses research such as this, likewise making the same exclusions. Educators, managers/corporate, doctors, therapists etc etc will use this for their respective tasks as they apply to us; and we’re given a one size fits all. As someone neurodivergent, I often have trouble warming up to not just people but the scene/setting we’re in in general. We exist, and I’d really love to avoid another therapist who projects their need for in person socialization onto me, all because studies keep forgetting us. You’re Ivy League; many people take your work for *gospel*. Respect that level of power and be better.

    1. I agree. I’m Autistic, and Zoom conversations are much less stressful as a general rule!

  20. You likely used subjects who are deemed neurotypical and likely, extroverted. You need to update your findings with information regarding both if you even tallied those descriptors. Otherwise, I would suggest that you also use a subject pool who are autistic, and likely introverted, because I’m betting that your findings would be very different and perhaps the opposite of what you attest to here.

    1. Was it stated that the participants were randomly assigned to the study? If so, purposely choosing all neurodivergent, or introverts, or all neurodivergent and introvert participants would be three different studies.

  21. We learned from social media that people are more likely to challenge an idea if they can “hide behind a keyboard” … challenging ideas is generally good but just needs some guardrails like anything else.

    Challenge the ideas in this article please.

    1. Hard agree, it’s hilarious most people here are in denial.. Even stating Autistic people are different, I am one, we are, but we need are humans too.. I love being alone, but human interaction with those we attune to, is aways leagues better..

  22. People overly relying on these social cues to feel like they trust a person or an idea is part of why our society is collapsing. Trust the ideas themselves disconnected from the social cues of the human who happens to present the idea.

    Using social cues for trust evolved from tribalistic type of needs but we MUST evolve ourselves beyond it.

  23. One could argue that spending more of your brain energy on the social stuff leaves less brain energy for that actual work itself

  24. This is a perfect example of how the lack of critical thinking and the specialization of everyone’s education can let people make bad conclusions from valid data

  25. “increased neural activity linked with gaze time, pupil dilation, and enhanced face processing ability, reflecting greater arousal and social cue exchange”

    So? Is this necessary or good for work productivity? No connection is made, but they use your implicit assumption of a connection pull you to the conclusion they want.

  26. I’m wondering about the participants and whether there were any additional variables observed for those who knew each other,(and for how long, in person) vs those who did not.
    Also, whether any prior research about non-visual communications,like phone conversations were studied for comparison.

    1. Well said. I can truly appreciate this comment. I will sometimes use online platforms of the same quality as zoom for therapy interactions. While many of my clients prefer face-to-face for the level of intensity, they can enjoy, there are some that need a reduced level of intensity to progress without being overwhelmed. Calling it an impoverished platform, or thinking it to be less efficacious would fail to take into account what you have astutely observed. The question of, so what matters here. When I’m working with a survivor of acute trauma, or a sudden recollection of painful past traumatic memories, there are times when they need intense, face-to-face connection, and other times when they simply need connection, but not too much. The healing process is different for each person, and the level of intensity in our interactions, does not have to be at its upper ab for it to be what is right for us.

    1. ADHA/ADD specific responses could pre-screen subjects for further studies and intervention s to counered negative thoughts and behaviors. Knowledge gap identified.

  27. How about the article published in neuroscience.news about “Interacting Brain Sync without physical presence” on 8/30/22. How does it add instead of subtract from how zoom conversations subtraxct from in- person activity. Another aspect of how science is able to monitor neural connections between people!?!

  28. An obvious result that changes nothing, or should change nothing, for the discourse of remote work. This piece is propaganda for RTO.

    1. I totally agree with you. “The scientific reason to force slave labor back in offices” Then the science community wonders why public trust in their word and discoveries are becoming muted and loosing clout.

  29. I wonder what the results would be if there was a combination of in person and zoom pairings. Would having had an in person interaction change he responsiveness on the subsequent zoom interaction?

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