Can Apps Like Zoom Replace Face-to-Face Interaction?
Online meetings can only give so much; we must seek intimate rewards elsewhere.
COVID-19 has forced us to rethink how we interact with one another, specifically by shifting the emphasis to digital screens so that we can work and attend school from home.
Screen visiting is here to stay.
No matter how this crisis ends, digital screens, which were already starting to dominate large swaths of life, will become even more entrenched in our psyche.
Whether we like we like it or not, digital screens are going to become as essential to us as our cars and indoor plumbing. Yet this development comes with its own wrinkles. It will be a challenge to balance this screen-centric reality with the need for quiet space and the rewards of face-to-face interaction.
Psychologist Susan Piker recently wrote that responding to “infinitesimal cues” like nods, eye contact, and facial expressions that happen naturally during conversation is essential for both developing social skills and getting the most out of human contact. During this period of social isolation, video conferencing apps like Zoom preserve key requirements of the social brain, namely users’ ability to react in real time and pay attention for long stretches.
Can social isolation satisfy the social brain?
While such measures can substitute somewhat for person-to-person interactions, they are unlikely to ever become satisfying replacements. This is especially true in the case of education, whether at the elementary or college level. Experts already know that online-only instruction greatly limits learning because the spontaneous and adaptable in-person human element is not there. Its absence especially affects struggling or special-needs students.
Spontaneous interaction with one another in person lets us bounce off ideas, react to body language, and align feelings. Not only is the social brain at home doing this, but it is also good for our spirits. A tablet, smartphone, or desktop screen can only satisfy our hunger for connection so much. While Zoom and Skype are preferable to more detached platforms such as instant messaging, neither of them give users what full-bodied person-to-person engagement does.
Reading is a cure-all.
We can get past the inherent limits of digital communication by engaging in more mindful techniques such as reading. The reading trains us to have better focus, resist intrusions, and build up our emotional muscles.
The same goes for meditation, which helps us to be fully aware of both feelings and our physical body. Each is a vital part of meaningful social interaction. In this atmosphere of social distancing, however, we can take what we can get from digital communication while staying mindful to make up for what we are missing.
Richard E. Cytowic, MD, MFA, professor of neurology at George Washington University