How video calls affect your brain

Our conversations have gone virtual like never before. How do video chats compare with face-to-face?
18 May 2020

Interview with 

Antonia Hamilton, University College London


A person on a video call.


Our conversations have gone virtual like never before: children are attending virtual school; many of us are working from home attending relentless video meetings; and almost everyone is using video calls to keep in touch with friends and family. What do we know about how a virtual chat compares with a face to face one? Katie Haylor spoke to social neuroscientist Antonia Hamilton from University College London...

Antonia - If you're on a live video call one-to-one, it's pretty similar to a real face to face conversation, how your eye movements, physiological responses behave; but then there's other aspects where it's much, much harder being on a video call. If I'm looking at an object or a piece of paper in front of me, to then share that with the person on the other screen is much trickier and I've got to start sort of thinking about camera angles and turning things around. Having video calls with multiple people is much harder, because you don't know who's going to speak next and you're losing track of who's where.

Katie - And does the quality of the communication differ?

Antonia - It probably does, but it's hard to pin down the exact ways in which it does. And I think it depends on the kind of conversation you're trying to have. "When's our next meeting" and "what's happening on this particular event" or something - that's probably going to be just as effective in either context. Whereas if it's a difficult conversation, it's a highly personal conversation, it's probably going to have a much bigger impact on the quality.

Katie - When we last spoke you mentioned you were just about to start a study on virtual conversations...

Antonia - We create a virtual person who'll have a conversation with you. We can have two different virtual people. One of them nods in the way that we think is natural; and then another virtual person, they just do some sort of head movement behaviour that isn't related to conversation. They're pretty preliminary results, but certainly our data suggests that you like the character more if that character shows natural head movement behaviour - they're nodding in time with you, they're nodding in response to the things that you're saying.

Katie - I've just noticed I've been nodding along to you despite the fact that we've turned the webcam off, so you can't see that I'm nodding along! But there we go.

Antonia - Yes! I was talking to somebody - I'm not sure if it was you - but somebody in radio who said that radio people do a lot of nodding when they're doing an interview behind glass and they want the other person to keep talking.

Katie - I definitely find virtual communication more taxing than face to face. Why is it so tiring?

Antonia - You're not getting these cues automatically, and so you're having to make a bit more effort to remember that there's another person there, that they can see you. Often you're seeing yourself on the camera, which is really distracting, and so you're sort of having to work a bit harder with all of these aspects of engagement.

Katie - Can I ask you about differences in social behaviour? Because I think some people, they move quite a bit more in conversations; and indeed some people find it quite difficult to communicate socially. Do you think that has implications for the pretty intense time we're in now?

Antonia - I think it probably does. There isn't new data yet on how people are coping with everything, having to switch to virtual conversations. I know of a group working with children with autism, interacting with them over webcam interfaces, and some of the autistic children seem to engage quite well with that because they have less anxiety when there isn't a physical person in the room, but they'll still engage with the person at the other end of the camera. But other people find that they really want much more physical social interaction; they're not getting that from the webcam. A Skype conversation doesn't leave you at the end with that same feeling of friendship maybe that you would have from actually having a pint in a pub with a real friend.

Katie - Do you have any communication tips during this time when virtual communication is just so much more frequent?

Antonia - I guess the main thing is to have a bit more patience with other people with the technology. Certainly if it's a group call, it's very worthwhile establishing rules at the beginning of 'this is how we're going to organise things'. Some of these bits of software have things where you can click a button to send a clap, or a heart, or a smile, or a thumbs up, or something like that. And we can see, in the context of things like texts and messages, how emojis have now become this enormous world of different things, because people want ways to communicate without having to put everything in words. We encourage people to use the option to chat, the option to put some emojis, because all of these types of backchanneling are really, really useful in conversations. And that's again one of the things that we often lose when we go virtual. So we can do it, but it does take more effort, it takes more patience, and it's important to take breaks and get away from the laptop as well sometimes.


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