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Face-to-Face Communication – Why It’s Better For Our Brains


The human brain evolved through social interactions, which is why it is so stimulated by face-to-face contact.

Face-to-Face Communication – Why It’s Better For Our Brains

If you’ve ever left a virtual call feeling confused, frustrated, or that your message just hasn’t landed the way you wanted it to, it may be less about the technology and more about your own biology!

A recent study has shown that using technology to communicate online is less effective than face-to-face conversations, as it doesn’t engage the brain in the same way. 

Face-to-face communication allows more brain synchrony

The study, published in the journal NeuroImage, measured the effect of technology-assisted communication on mothers and their teenage children. During the experiment, participants’ brain activity was monitored during rest, face-to-face conversations and virtual calls.

The researchers measured electrical activity in the brain during each type of communication and discovered that participants’ brains ‘synchronised’ when they were face-to-face in a way that did not occur during virtual communication.

To put it another way, face-to-face activity allowed the participants to ‘tune in’ to one another much more effectively.

In fact, during live interactions, nine ‘cross brain links’ were developed between the participants, compared to just one link on a virtual call. 

In-person communication allows interactions that virtual does not

So what is it about face-to-face interactions that fires up our brain so much – and what is missing when we’re online?

The human brain evolved through social interactions, which is why it is so stimulated by face-to-face contact. Experts think that being in a room with someone allows increased opportunities for experiences such as a shared gaze, social engagement and empathic resonance, which leads to better communication and understanding.

On the flip side, virtual interactions appear to eliminate the brain activity that is linked to our processing of non-verbal social cues and affective states of the other person. 

In short, our brains aren’t as good as ‘reading’ people when conversing online. It’s more difficult for us to understand people’s intentions and to read their emotional state. If you find virtual calls tough, it’s not you – it’s your brain!

Causes of Zoom fatigue

The reduction in communication ability when meeting virtually could be a key contributor to what is most often referred to as ‘Zoom fatigue’.

There are a number of elements that make it difficult to concentrate on virtual meetings, whatever the platform. These include the constant screen gazing during video chats, which we haven’t evolved to do, reduced mobility, ‘mirror anxiety’ from looking at ourselves for long periods and awkward delays in response time due to muting microphones or talking over one another.

Bad posture or camera angles also make it very difficult to read non-verbal cues, such as body language and facial expressions, which happen naturally during face-to-face conversation.

Should my meeting be in-person or a video call?

We’re faced with a lot of choices these days about how we run our meetings and presentations, so it can be difficult to weigh up the pros and cons and work out what’s right for us. 

While technology allows us greater freedom and ability to connect instantly with teams across the world, a face-to-face meeting is the optimal way of communicating. Why? It allows you and the other participants to engage fully with one another, taking in the non-verbal cues and reading emotions and intentions more easily.

That said, virtual communication still holds a very important place in our day-to-day lives. The good news is that even though it was less effective than in-person communication, the study still found that brains were able to synchronise via screens. 

Improve your online communication

A key factor in improving virtual communication is to try and replicate the authenticity of a face-to-face meeting wherever you can. 

This includes:

  • Setting up your camera so that the other person can see your upper body and hands. This is essential so that you can use your body language, particularly your gestures, to help give those non-verbal cues that are typically lacking in online meetings. We have more tips on how to set up your camera here.
  • Making your meetings shorter. The exhaustion that comes with virtual communication means that participants aren’t able to concentrate for the same amount of time as they would in a face-to-face meeting. Send out an agenda or reading material beforehand so that people have the key information already, and keep your actual meeting as concise as possible. 
  • Explain the logistics at the outset, including how and when people will be invited to speak. Part of the stress involved in virtual calls is linked to awkwardness with people talking over one another, so get someone to facilitate the meeting and choose who will speak when.

Ultimately, understanding how our brains process information during different types of meetings will help you to choose what’s best for your team. Whilst a virtual call may be convenient, you might find that a 15-minute in-person meeting could actually be more effective than a one-hour online meeting.

Learn more about virtual communication

At Body Talk, we run courses and masterclasses on virtual communication to help you understand and get the best out of the technology available to you. Get in touch today to find out how we could help your team. Or watch/listen to our podcast with BBC Presenter Alina Jenkins about how to communicate with impact in a virtual setting.

Virtual Communication Tips from a BBC Presenter from Body Talk on Vimeo.