This is what happens to your brain during a video call

COVID-19 has forced everyone, across all industries, to take their meetings online. For the foreseeable future, talking with colleagues, bosses, and clients in-person is pretty much out of the question. So, what can we do? The immediate and obvious answer has been video calls and conferences.

These online get-togethers are often awkward, plagued by poor internet connections, and filled with speakers unknowingly turned on mute. Still, they’re the best option we have right now to try and maintain some form of communicational normalcy.

Surprisingly, a new study has found that eye contact made with another person over video chat elicits a very similar psychophysiological response from our autonomic nervous systems to genuinely making in-person eye contact. Basically, as far as our brains and subconscious bodily responses to stimuli are concerned, making eye contact with someone over a video call is very close to a “real” interaction.

While these findings won’t make it any less annoying the next time you’re video chat with a client cuts out for five minutes, they’re still quite significant. On a social level, we all need to interact with other people for our wellbeing, and from a business perspective, it’s important to make a connection with the people we’re working with. These results suggest video calls can indeed meet those needs sufficiently while we wait out this pandemic.

The research, commissioned by Tampere University, also noted that simply watching a pre-recorded video of someone doesn’t produce the same bodily response. So, live video chats are unique in that regard. Even on a subconscious level, our nervous systems can tell the difference between taped footage and in-person interactions.

“Our results imply that the autonomic arousal response to eye contact requires the perception of being seen by another. Another person’s physical presence is not required for this effect,” says first study author Jonne Hietanen in a university release.

In all, the study’s authors analyzed participants’ physical reactions across three scenarios; an in-person meeting, a video chat, and a pre-recorded video. In all three situations, however, participants made both direct and indirect eye contact with another person. While that was happening, each person’s skin conductance and facial muscle activations were tracked and measured.

When our bodies react to external or internal stimuli and become aroused, our skin becomes more capable of conducting electricity. This phenomenon is referred to as “skin conductance.” For this research, changes in participants’ skin conductance were used to keep track of whether or not their autonomic nervous system had activated. Meanwhile, facial muscle movements were observed to determine the context of those activations (positive or negative).

Unsurprisingly, actual in-person eye contact universally resulted in the most prominent autonomic arousal response. That being said, though, making eye contact with someone over a video call also invoked a similar, yet not as strong, autonomic nervous system activation. 

However, across all three experimental groups, making direct eye contact with someone else did cause participants’ facial muscles to react with positive emotion (a smile).

“Unexpectedly, we also found that even when the other person was presented just on video, seeing direct gaze elicited the subtle facial reactions of smiling. This suggests that these facial reactions are highly automated responses to eye contact,” Hietanen explains.

This research feels particularly timely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but even during normal times, these results speak to just how important eye contact is to human interaction in general. For now, though, this study is something to keep in mind the next time you’re feeling extra annoyed about a glitchy video session. Digital face-to-face interaction is far better than no live visual correspondence at all.

The full study can be found here, published in Psychophysiology.