With video-calling and VoIP services like Skype and FaceTime at all-time high adoption rates among businesses and individuals alike, and being touted as ‘almost as good as being there’, the question of just how good a substitute these services are for genuine face-to-face contact should be asked. So, can you ‘meaningfully connect’ (whatever that means) over Skype? Can you make eye contact or, at the end of the day, are you destined to see pixels first and pupils second?
This isn’t just a philosophical question, it’s primarily a matter of neurology and psychology. Skype definitely has an edge over other traditional means of communication. Unlike letters, telephone calls, text messages and Wall posts, with Skype you can actually see who you’re talking to. Physiologically, this makes all the difference.
For one, a whole plethora of nonverbal cues is made available. Being able to recognise facial expressions, micro-expressions, voice intonation and, to a certain extent, body language enhance the quality of the interaction. What’s more, the mere sight of a friend, and especially of someone you love, triggers a vivid neural recreation of that person (or the idea of that person). Visual information is sent from the eyes to the occipital lobe to the fusiform gyrus, a structure which on top of other things, assigns meaning to images, words and faces. Think face-detection on a digital camera.
From there the message enters the amygdala and excites the limbic system, the emotional core of your brain, triggering remembered behaviours, stimulating blood flow to the heart, hormone secretion and other events in an endocrinological chain reaction. It’s the same reason we feel happy when we go to our favourite childhood playground, or get irritated when we hear a song on the radio which is looped at work (although a different part of the brain is responsible for audio inputs). Even when we know that the screen is not our significant other, we still react like we would in real life.
How is meaning expressed in neural terms? And how does this expression of meaning arise? We suspect (Crick and Koch, 1995c) that meaning derives both from the correlated firing described above (sic.) and from the linkages to related representations. For example, neurons related to a certain face might be connected to ones expressing the name of the person whose face it is, and to others for her voice, memories involving her and so on, in a vast associational network, similar to a dictionary or a relational database. Exactly how this works in detail is unclear.
But despite all this, we can’t help but feel that it’s not quite the same. And we’d be right.
In researching this, I went to where all the cool kids go, reddit, and asked what people thought. I highly recommend reading both posts that I made here and here. Naturally, a prime candidate for this sort of question emerged; people who are in or have been in a long-distance relationship (LDR). For LDR couples, Skype is often the lifeblood of the relationship, a useful substitute for physical presence. People reported feeling ‘comforted’, ‘close’, ‘nice’, instantly happier, but invariably this was paired with words such as ‘distant’, ‘distracted’, ‘teased’, ‘torturous’.
Skype is a double-edged sword for LDR couples; on one hand it’s a special time to connect, on the other it’s a painful reminder of physical absence. It’s like visiting someone in prison behind glass.
Unsurprisingly, no one has yet (as specifically as this) rounded up friends or couples, stuck one of them in an fMRI, had them chat to each other over Skype, measured the levels of dopamine, cortisol, oxytocin (or other neurotransmitters and hormones involved in bonding/love) coursing through their synapses during, and then compared them against a real life rendezvous. Aspects have certainly been addressed, but like most things in this area the research done is scant and piecemeal at best.
That said, some things are clear.
Firstly, taking away the possibility for physical contact inhibits the full potential of the emotional response evoked by the limbic system. When we are touched (affectionately, through hugs, handshakes, handholding etc.) oxytocin is released like pollen from a flower. When we have sex, cortisol levels (a stress-relieving hormone) skyrocket. But when you subtract touch from the equation you’re left with, pardon the phrasing, a neutered experience.
Interestingly this doesn’t seem to be the case for relationships where physical contact is less prominent (friends, business, therapy etc). In fact, remote psychiatry is relatively as effective as face-to-face therapy. It’s still there regardless, but it seems the stronger your tactile history with your Skypee, the bigger that sense of distance.
Similarly, the absence of smell subtracts an important sensory input. Pheromones and other scents emitted by someone we know trigger powerful memories associated with that person, and that’s something which is difficult to replicate. The neuronal representation of a loved one is always going to fall a few dead pixels short minus smell, or at least be somewhat incomplete. There are other factors too. Low resolutions and slow frame rates make it harder to detect micro-expressions, the blue LED light emitted by most screens may make us feel less calm/warm/fuzzy. All in all, the compromise of the full multi-sensory experience plays a big part in changing the dynamic of the interaction.
This is also asserted by Richard Lannon in “A General Theory Of Love” (thanks to redditor artwooo for the quote):
The limbic brain registers the disorienting loss of attachments as the all-purpose ache of homesickness. Letters and phone calls are a salve on the wound, but insubstantial substitutes for the full-bandwidth sensory experience of nearness to the ones you love. To sustain a living relationship, limbic regulation demands sensory inputs that are rich, vivid and frequent.”
There is some silver lining here though. Use over time can improve our ability to read faces over the net. If you only know someone through the web, that may be preferable to seeing them in person. As mentioned, the less prominent touch is, the less jarring Skype will be. And finally we can look at how LDR couples compensate for this obvious shortcoming. They call daily, five hours at a time, talk each other to sleep and wake up with the other still on the line. Mirroring behaviours, such as contagious yawning is possible, as is going on remote dates to the park via 3G networks. Couples watch movies together by streaming the same thing at the same time, and some even hug their partner’s pillow during a Skype call, just for those hints of scent which add to the feeling of closeness. Would Lannon consider these inputting behaviours as rich, vivid and frequent? What do you think?
When all’s said and done, there’s no substitute for the real thing. But that doesn’t mean what we experience together on Skype is fraudulent, apathetic or superficial. Rather, what we’re left with is a neurochemically watered-down version of genuine face-to-face contact. It’s the same feelings, just a bit weaker, missing a few inputs and typically mixed with other stuff.
As they get better and better, video calling services are increasingly characterised as what it means to ‘connect’ to each other in the digital age. But considering what you’ve read here, is it right to use the word ‘connection’? If we always have something ‘real’ to compare it with, is this really ‘connection’ at all? Originally a black/white issue (connection/disconnection), nowadays the rhetoric surrounding connectivity is increasingly casting it in all shades of gray. Is a discrepancy between ‘contact’ and ‘connection’ beginning to form? Or are we redefining that word retrospectively in light of current technology?
Let me know your thoughts on this below, or anything related for that matter, from more research to your own personal anecdotes.
Thanks for reading,