What We Lose with Digital Communication

Houseparty. Zoom. Skype. FaceTime. Google Meet. Etc.

Indeed, there are myriad ways to remotely connect with others. Doing so is important in a world that does not find most of us living together in groups of extended family or friends. The current global pandemic response to Covid-19 is requiring us to rethink how we maintain our social relationships, particularly those that were previously largely restricted to the domain of face-to-face communication. Those relationships have now either gone by the wayside or have crossed into the realm of the relationships that were already largely digital.

We know that Covid-19 has turned the world on its head. This provides an important opportunity to delve into the influences digital technology has had, and will continue to have, on the ways that we communicate with others. Humans are social creatures who have evolved due to and on the basis of face-to-face relationships; digital communication is not that and we are not wired to communicate digitally.

This is not to say that digital communication cannot benefit nor facilitate interaction, but it does not have the same impact as a face-to-face conversation. While many might argue for its necessity, we also need to understand what digital communication can and cannot provide for its highly social users.

Neurological elements of conversation

Firstly, face-to-face communication allows for the full gamut of available stimuli to be processed by our brain. We have evolved to recognise micro-expressions and interpret body language and tone subconsciously and rapidly as part of what comprises communication. Recent psychology research, such as that of Joy Hirsch among many others, suggests that we mimic others’ gestures during verbal communication to enhance comprehension. Both congruence and incongruence between gestures and verbal communication act as social cues that then inform the subsequent interaction. Hirsch extends this research into trust, arguing that it is congruence between gestural and verbal communication that signals openness and trust.

Additional research suggests that face-to-face communication leads to activation of mirror neurons, which fire when we are performing a specific action and watch others do the same. This ability to recognise, process, and experience the mental states of others is one of the explanations that psychology can provide for the development of human empathy. Current research with fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) has allowed researchers to look at areas of the brain that activate in relation to the self, to others, and in relation to a computer. When dealing with humans, the hormone oxytocin increases trust. The same response does not occur when dealing with a computer.

Unfortunately, the nature of digital communication allows so much scope for distraction, so much extraneous cognitive load, that achieving such a relationship is nigh impossible. The implications of this are obvious.

But there are other effects to consider.

Empathy

As social creatures, humans have evolved to step into the shoes of others (whom those others might be is a fun topic in evolutionary psychology research) and take action accordingly. Relationships require us to understand one another’s emotions and perspectives and most of us know that this is challenging at the best of times. What happens when digital communication removes the facial expressions, gestures, tone, and cadence that we rely on to understand the meaning behind what others are saying? Additionally, what happens if we have not actually developed the ability to interpret these complex, nuanced cues as a result of the depth to which we have adopted digital communication?

Research suggests a decline in empathy scores over time with the most significant change occurring between 2000 and 2009, correlating with the rise of digital communication. Later generations of college students have shown lower scores on both empathic concern, the emotional component of empathy, and perspective-taking, the cognitive component of empathy. Clearly, this is a problem.

However, it is also fair to point out that not all digital activity is the same and, therefore, the effects digital activity has on empathy can also vary. Research suggests that online activities that are a precursor to face-to-face communication are associated with higher real-life empathy, but other online activities that do not lead to face-to-face communication instead reduce real-world empathy scores. For example, chatting online with someone for a month means that I am far more likely to be empathic towards them when/if we meet in person, but participating in online activities based in fantasy worlds that do not transfer to real life might actually reduce real-world empathy.

Moreover, substituting digital communication for face-to-face communication can lead to a decrease in empathy because the brain’s empathic response depends on stimuli that digital communication filters out. As the researchers above suggest, while virtual empathy is positively correlated with real-world empathy, it is lower overall than real-world empathy scores. This means that we do not respond the same way in digital and in in-person spaces.

For example, think of the last time you ended a digital conversation feeling dissatisfied or distant. There’s a very strong possibility that someone responded to you in a digital space in ways that are not as thoughtful as you would have liked. This might be because the cues you sent were simply not picked up.

This brings us to another effect of digital communication, which is that of distraction.

Distraction

Most of us have been there. We’re messaging a friend and waiting for a reply when another notification pops up, or a housemate walks into the room, or the timer on the oven goes off. We put down our phone and our conversation pauses. When we return to the conversation again, even moments later, we pick up like nothing has happened.

But it has. While I’m taking something out of the oven or replying to an email, my friend might be sitting alone waiting for my response. My friend might have watched my status go from “typing” to blank space. And when I return to the conversation, I have no way of knowing what my friend has experienced in the time that lapsed. My friend doesn’t know what I was doing, either. 

In person, conversation depends on cadence and on rhythm. It ebbs and flows based on pauses, tone, and body language. I show I am listening by nodding or making appropriate noises. And I know it’s my turn to speak when suitable time has passed or I am asked a question.

Despite the immediacy of face-to-face communication, misunderstandings still occur. We all know this. This begs the question: If we get conversation wrong so often in real life, with all the richness of the cues and prompts in full view, how do we fare in the sterility of a digital space?

Psychology tells us (thanks to Danish physicist Tor Nørretranders) that over 85% of the stimulus that goes into our brains is visual, which means that all of the visual stimulus occurring at a particular time is competing for our attention. This means that anything that our eyes hook onto runs the chance of taking our attention away from anything else that was happening. As stated above, this could be as seemingly benign as a notification.

Psychology also tells us that less than 1% of all the sensory stimuli that are around us arrive at the brain. Think about that again. Less than 1% of what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste actually gets registered by our brain.  Attention is the most critical variable in being understood, yet it is also the thing that is seduced the most in a remote world. Without the immediacy of our conversation partner to direct us to the interaction that we are having, we waver, we wander, and we lose.

Induced media multitasking

Considering what we know about the brain’s capacity to pay attention to stimuli, it is not surprising that humans are poor multitaskers. In fact, we do not multitask at all. Instead, the brain performs extremely rapid switches to allow us to go back and forth between tasks. As I write this, music is playing in the background. I’m finding it hard to concentrate on the words I’m typing when Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull is interrupting.

But if you’re anything like my students, you’d shout, “But wait! I need music to focus!” Some people claim that. Although the human brain is wired to process competing stimuli as a matter of survival, the processing of multiple stimuli means that we have a greater cognitive load and therefore less bandwidth, as in the above from Nørretranders, to pay attention. This means that while we can, by all appearances, do more than one thing at once, or attend to more than one area at a time, switching our attention also means that we do neither thing well.

To put it bluntly, the digital world requires us to look at multiple things. We do not look at any of them well, despite all we might say to convince ourselves and others of the opposite.

The erosion of meaningful connection

When communicating in digital spaces, we are less empathic, more distracted, and caught between competing stimuli. These are only some of the considerations to be aware of as our contact with others increasingly occurs in the digital world.

I am particularly concerned with the effects this has on meaningful human connection. If all of the above weren’t enough, also consider the fact that it is far easier to separate ourselves from others in a digital space than in a physical environment. One issue here is the security that many feel with the anonymity that digital communication provides. The research on bullying speaks volumes about what can happen when people are not in real-world contact with one another.

Furthermore, my digital communication with another person is separated by a screen. I might read their words or even hear their voice but I am in my own world and my own space. This prevents me from experiencing what my conversation partner is describing and can lead to desensitization of myself from another person. I am occupied with my world and choose when to enter theirs but we no longer occupy the space together. As we become more distant from one another, our conversations might fade from intimate, if they ever were, to cursory. 

Ultimately, the fear is that we are leading to a world of emotional isolation. If we are separated from others and cannot connect empathically with them the way that we are wired to do, what is left of communication? And without the connection that real-world communication facilitates, who do we become? How are we supposed to feel, to experience, to be? Who can we share our lives with?

These are very real questions that have been asked before, but the time now mandates that we ask them again, and do so forcefully.  All of us who are fortunate enough to have access to the digital world will experience some if not all of what is noted above, and all of us are therefore obliged to look around us, to acknowledge the issues that exist, and to act so that we can maintain some of our humanity.


Special thanks to a friend for the questions and dialogue that sparked this piece.

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