one surprising explanation for video-call fatigue — and how to fight back

A tired child.

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We’ve written before about “Zoom fatigue.” It’s the unique feeling of exhaustion that follows a video call.

When the world moved online in spring 2020, it seemed like Zoom and other video tools would replace all of our in-person activities — from school to work to socializing. But there were some not-so-fun negative effects to all of that video time, like profound cognitive fatigue.

Now, scientists have narrowed down what causes the mental and physical fatigue that seems to follow video conversations. To understand what causes this drop in mental energy, let’s consider 1) how normal conversations work and 2) why video-calling platforms can cause more emotional distress than talking in daily life.

Why conversations have a ‘flow’

In every natural in-person conversation, certain things hold true.

You can’t see yourself, for one thing — just the person you’re talking to. You don’t engage in extended eye contact — only the occasional glance to confirm the other person is listening. And you can focus completely on the conversation — not worry about what you look like or whether your mic is muted.

Video calls upend all of these conversational norms. By default, video calling apps display on your computer screen what your camera sees. That produces a constant sense of dissociation as you watch yourself talk. If you do look away from your face, you see a wall of other faces that appear to be staring right at you. Finally, you have to manage what mental health professionals call cognitive load as you check your mic status and navigate between windows.

All of these things together lower your energy levels, as previous studies have shown. But, as we’ve explained before, there are some effective ways to fight fatigue symptoms and improve your cognitive functioning on video calls.

Namely, you can 1) turn off the feature that shows you your own camera; 2) switch to seeing only the current speaker on video, instead of every participant in the call; and 3) keep your mic off as much as possible to lessen the physical tiredness caused by cognitive overload.

But, study authors say, there’s another reason for the physical exhaustion you experience on video calls. It has to do less with what you see or say and more with what you hear.

Listening as a component of high-quality conversations

A recent study conducted two experiments in series to zero in on why video calls may produce symptoms of mental exhaustion.

In one of the experiments, researchers had groups of people listen and respond to pre-recorded yes/no questions both on their computers and over Zoom. Reaction time to the questions more than tripled over Zoom compared to when they played directly from the people’s PCs.

In the other experiment, the study authors replicated the questions in natural, spontaneous, in-person conversations between friends. They found much the same thing as in the first experiment: that there was a significant difference in the “flow” of the conversation on Zoom.

The aim of this study was to quantify how long it took for the conversation partners to go back and forth. In person, the speakers took an average of 135 milliseconds to transition to one another. On Zoom, the transition time averaged 487 milliseconds.

“While under half a second seems pretty quick, that difference is an eternity in terms of natural conversation rhythms,” one of the researchers said.

How we maintain conversational flow

The reason these delays are so disruptive to brain function is down to our natural brain activity in conversation. Having evolved as social creatures who interact in person, we are accustomed to conversational transition times that are lightning-quick.

In a typical in-person discussion, we comprehend what the other person is saying, plan what we’re going to say in response, and “time” our reply — more or less simultaneously. The “timing” component, mental health experts theorize, is one of our mental tasks that’s managed automatically.

It’s such a finely tuned process that it can adapt instantaneously to different syllable rates. “When you hear syllables four times a second, the electrical activity in your brain peaks at the same rate​,” researcher Julie Boland writes.

But video calling throws all of this off. Due to latency introduced when audio and video data is transmitted across thousands of miles, what you say on video inevitably gets delayed by a beat or two. Over the course of a conversation, signs of mental fatigue start to show.

Fighting the scourge of unnatural conversation

If you can’t do anything about delays in data transmission, are there any easy tasks to make your digital conversations more natural so they demand less mental effort? Some modest lifestyle changes may help.

– Get on a speedy data connection.

Your mobile data plan might be fast, but it is likely to have more latency than a wired connection. Use a tool like Speedtest or to see how your data plan is performing. Consider switching your calls to an option with lower latency, whether that is a Wi-Fi network or a 5G connection, for improved quality of life in your daily activities.

– Migrate from video to audio.

Video calls typically have more latency than VoIP calls — because 1) more data is getting transmitted and 2) video apps split your broadcast into separate audio and video signals before transmitting them. Without the hundreds of milliseconds of delay typical of video calls, VoIP conversations can sound more natural and lessen your mental exertion.

– Use a platform that prioritizes speed.

At illumy, we’re building an all-in-one communications app that offers super-fast audio connections in addition to email and IM. Our goal is round-trip VoIP calls in 150 milliseconds or less, no matter where in the world you might be. Plus, our VoIP tech stack automatically adapts to your data speed to give you the highest quality (and lowest stress levels) possible. It’s a great way to keep conversations flowing — not to mention the best solution for staying connected internationally.

Photo by Henrikke Due on Unsplash.

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