What we lose in online meetings and how to survive them.
Zoom drinks and Skype dinners were fun at first. And essential. Office life now revolves around online meetings.
But as the coronavirus crisis lengthens, and the lockdown extends from days to weeks or more, what might we lose to virtual communication?
At one level, that’s easily answered. For we humans, the meeting of bodies as well as minds clearly matters. We’re sensing, breathing organisms whose bodies actively and intelligently respond to what’s going on, in more ways than we can imagine. We aren’t machines. Feelings matter as much as functions. Skin doesn’t only contain pulsating organs but rippling emotions too.
We think with our hands, see with our stomachs, touch with our hearts. “I can hear people smile,” David Blunkett once remarked.
The science of sensing calls it “cross-modal linking”, which is to say that communication is embodied. But during the Covid-19 outbreak, when people will suffer from social distancing, it’s worth teasing out the ways in which communication is embodied. Then, we can prepare ourselves for the losses of this time, consider some remedies, and be better able to cope.
Sights and scents
First, some good news. Cyberspace is an embodied environment too. Moreover, neuroscience suggests that the magic of mirror neurons mean we experience virtuality in ways that often match the way we experience physicality. In both cases, the same neural pathways may activate.
However, virtual embodiment is also different. Your body is in the room with you. An image is not. It’s floating elsewhere, like the reflection in a mirror. It’s also probably 2-D not 3-D, as well as being stripped of its smells. That may seem like a detail until you read about how anosmia can make people feel lonely, as well as well as leaving them longing for a sniff of scent.
There is also evidence that during gatherings in cyberspace, our experience of sight and sound works differently. It becomes hierarchically organised. For example, if an individual decides to see as well as hear their online interlocutor, they will still mostly focus on the audio during an exchange. The visual element becomes a place holder, like the carrier wave of a radio transmission. It’s less a primary source of information and something is lost.
These differences begin to show up as the days go by. An early realisation is that speaking online is tiring. This is because you have to work harder to stay in touch with a person down the line. You have to capture what’s said, rather than resonating with it across the rainbow spectrum of experience. Subtler frequencies are harder to pick up.
One result is that limited meeting times are suggested. The aim is to mitigate Zoom and Skype fatigue.
Cognitive science offers another take on the exhaustion. It’s to do with how we select from the signals that bombard us and screen out the ones to ignore. The ability is called relevancy testing. It’s a skill that is carried out unconsciously with access to a rich array of indicators from physical reality, which may be compromised when the environment is denuded, as it is online. That makes it harder to tune in and easier to become distracted.
Research on brain lateralisation is illuminating too. The right hemisphere is more open-minded than the left hemisphere, neuroscientists have shown. It enjoys an intuitive, imaginative take on the world, whereas its companion prefers focus and specifics. Further, the right hemisphere is far more connected to the body via neural pathways. It draws on the body for its breadth.
So, if you take the body away, the right hemisphere may have less to go on, and an individual may suffer tunnel-vision or find it harder to understand. The intuition that some decisions can only be made in person is right.
A different dimension of the loss concerns the role the body plays in our earliest communications, as infants. Sigmund Freud observed that the first ego is the body ego. He meant that the body alone provided our earliest sense of I-ness in the world. It’s in the body that we first gain a sense of who we are.
Watch a parent and child and you see it immediately. Touch and gaze provide rich channels of exchange. The youngster explores itself in another’s eyes and finds security in another’s arms.
These are the “primitive” emotions, as psychotherapists call them, meaning the ones that bed down inside us when we are young, all being well. When present, they generate security and resource a sense of being understood. They support the conviction that communication is worthwhile and life can be trusted.
Conversely, when communication becomes disembodied, hidden insecurities may start to creep in. Having to repeat yourself may precipitate frustration. Being unable to match the rhythms of another and so feel in sync can generate anxiety. Did I say it right? Did I cause offense? Did I misunderstand?
If you notice yourself thinking you might skip the next meeting, or not bother to call back, it may be because factors like this are at play.
Disembodiment can also be intense. Rather than feeling seen or heard, the screen can precipitate the sense of being watched, looked at, or scrutinised. Again, early experience illuminates the difficulty. Babies will often turn their heads away from a parent when they feel overstimulated or overwhelmed. They know how to give themselves a break, whilst keeping the parent in peripheral view. They want to feel the presence of the other and have space. That’s harder to do down the barrel of a screen.
In summary, the move to online gatherings may throw up much, particularly when it lasts for some time. But they are part of life now, so the question arises: how to live well with them?
There are at least three steps to help navigate the enforced, if necessary, adoption of meeting technology.
First, name that it’s different. Saying that you are not sure how virtual gatherings will work gives people permission not to have to pretend it’s business as usual. It also creates the chance to share what’s unexpected and, possibly, not wanted. That can be embraced with less anxiety.
Second, reflect for yourself. How do you find online meetings? What do you enjoy and dislike? The point is that Skype and Zoom test people’s psychology. The digital atmosphere is thinner and some find it harder to breath.
Which suggests a third tip. Ensure that you’re receiving plenty of embodied experiences elsewhere. In particular, this means going outside. That’s where nature’s broadband is. Daylight, soundscapes, breezes, smells. This is the total immersion, cross-modal living that the body adores. So, after the meeting plug in your phone, but also plug in your life. Make sure your psychosomatic batteries recharge.