Two and a half months have passed since the United States has found itself on Zoom, Facetime, and any other app that provides people the slightest opportunity of human contact. For most students at Concord Academy, Zoom is one of the only connections to school, with classes and meetings held on the app multiple times a day. Teachers work tirelessly to emulate a classroom learning experience through the screen, but it is no secret that classes will never be the same. Students are less motivated, spending precious class time more disconnected and distracted than ever, while teachers have more trouble fostering classroom discussions and bonding meaningfully with students. Learning becomes difficult and more of a task than anything else, but there are reasons behind the struggle to connect.
Biologically, there are a set of things human beings look for and need in social interactions, many of which we lack when we speak through a screen. Andrea Yanes, CA’s evolutionary biology expert, explains, “Humans are social animals, which doesn’t just mean that we like to hang out in groups, we actually require the presence of others.” This need for being around other humans physically is mainly for the purpose of reproduction and keeping the species alive. Andrea specifies, “Humans have evolved to be face to face communicators and to read facial cues and body language,” demonstrating that texts and emails are not the best options for communication.
On the other hand, even though Zoom and other video apps are better means of communication because big body movements and facial cues are perceptible, other issues can be pointed out. Zoom calls are not instantaneous, for example, and even the slightest delay can affect the flow of a conversation. According to Andrea, the feeling of disconnectivity is related to chemicals in the brain. In an in-person interaction, a person subconsciously reads into all of the other person’s facial movements. This allows one to perceive where they are in the space and in relation to the other person, which, though seemingly trivial, makes one feel more present, and therefore more attentive to the interaction.
The demand for in-person association stems from human ancestors as hunter-gatherers with the deep need for trust in other people in order to survive. That trust at its core is much harder to achieve when the cues that help people read trustworthiness and unity diminishes. For example, if distance learning continues in the fall with new teachers and classmates, building that connection and trust will likely take longer, potentially slowing down the learning process. Furthermore, having the ability to look at oneself while talking to someone else adds another layer of difficulty in feeling connected. The camera forces one to examine what they are doing, making them more aware of themselves and have a harder time focusing on communication. Seeing one’s self on the screen while having to read a person through the screen simultaneously makes eye contact almost impossible. The nuances in how a person moves their face and show emotion may be subconscious, and without eye contact, human brains cannot take in a full set of facial signals.
“It’s like having a conversation where the two people have sunglasses on,” Yanes compares, “You can’t see the other person’s eyes, and that’s a huge set of information for social interactions.”
Extreme cases of social isolation without any interactions could change the brain structure and the way it functions. Though this, of course, is not the case for students staying at home, they still experience the negative effects of loneliness and start to crave human contact more, especially those who are living alone during this pandemic. Humans rely on the contact and different types of physical interactions to build bonds. This contact is so crucial that it is not uncommon to find people who live by themselves going as far as hugging themselves just to feel the touch and pressure of another body.
Distance learning and social distancing does not immediately threaten people’s lives or the ability to reproduce, so it is very unlikely that any kind of human evolution will be caused as a result of isolation. Society will, however, adapt and cope with this new lifestyle if it must continue. But for now, people just have to hope that the current situation evolves for the better so that we do not have to.