4 weird things that happen when you videoconference
If you surreptitiously pick your nose, chances are that everyone can see you doing it.
Family, friends, neighbors and even TV talk-show hosts are now meeting and broadcasting from home. Meanwhile, Microsoft, Google and Zoom are struggling to meet the demand for their videoconferencing services.
People have long noticed, however, that some peculiar things happen in videoconferencing. A magazine mentioned its “bizarre intimacy." Jaron Lanier, who is considered the “father of virtual reality," once remarked that it “seems precisely configured to confound" nonverbal communication.
I seek to understand why certain issues arise when technology is introduced to educational settings and to suggest ways to deal with them.
Here are four odd things that happen when you're engaged in a videoconference.
1. Eye contact is lacking
First, and probably most obviously, meeting by video interferes with eye contact. This is due to a simple technical limitation: There's no way to put the camera and the display screen in the same spot. When you look at the camera on your device, you give the impression you're looking someone in the eye. However, when you look at their eyes on screen, you appear to be looking away.
Phenomenology and psychology both emphasize the importance and complexity of eye contact.
"In eye contact you not only observe the eyes of the other person," observes author and philosophy professor Beata Stawarska, but this other person is also "attending to your attention while you are attending to hers."
This extends to multiple levels of awareness, as philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty observes: "I look at him. He sees that I look at him. I see that he sees it. He sees that I see that he sees it." Merleau-Ponty adds that as a result, "there are no longer two consciousnesses" in a moment of locked eye contact, "but two mutually enfolding glances."
For Merleau-Ponty, these kinds of experiences are a part of what he calls our embodied reversibility: I see, hear and experience others as they see, hear and experience me.
2. Looking awry
Here's a warning a pair of researchers gave about making a video guest presentation in a classroom: "Even if… you are not 'on,' you are on-screen, and probably larger than life-size. If you surreptitiously pick your nose, chances are that everyone can see you doing it."
Sitting in front of a webcam and computer, the guest-presenter sees a room full of students. But the students see a talking head on a projection screen, showing every blemish or imperfection. Instead of sitting or facing one another reciprocally, "face to face," we find ourselves looking up, down or sideways at the sometimes much-larger-than-life image of those we see and speak with online.
3. Feeling watched
Without overt eye contact and embodied reciprocity, people who videoconference can sometimes feel silently scrutinized or surveilled. A person may worry: Exactly how does the unblinking camera eye show me to others?
"Though we may pretend to be looking at another person when we FaceTime or Zoom," journalist Madeleine Aggeler observes, "really we're just looking at ourselves – fussing with our hair, subtly adjusting our facial expressions, trying to find the most flattering angle at which to hold our phones." Videoconferencing can be a bit like the distracting or enervating experience of talking while constantly glancing ourselves in a mirror.
4. Squelching voices
The long-lived tagline of the Verizon network, "Can you hear me now?" is a question associated with technology. Face to face, we are able to monitor our speaking as a result of our own vocal projection and the acoustic environment. And we do this based on the assumption of acoustic reversibility: that others hear the world as we do.
Online, this is not necessarily the case. Our voices might break up as they are compressed and transmitted, a noise in the background might overtake us or our mic might simply be set to "mute." By its very nature, sound, unlike vision, is relatively undirected. Face to face, it is enveloping and shared. Its disruption and interruption online can be as jarring as speaking with someone who refuses to make eye contact.
A new normal
Despite the odd ways that communication takes place in a videoconference, as a society, we're about to get more accustomed to this mode of communication. There are many websites full of tips on how to make the most of our videoconferencing experience.
Among other things, these tips advise us to place the camera at eye level to appear naturally positioned, to use a clean, well-lit space to be clearly visible and to wear a headset to maximize audio quality. But no matter what we do to have a smooth videoconference experience, video will lack the "mutual enfolding" of the senses that, as Merleau-Ponty knew, comes with meeting in the flesh.
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New research establishes an unexpected connection.
- A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
- Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
- When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.
We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?
A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.
The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.
An unexpected culprit
The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.
What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.
"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.
"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)
Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think
The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.
You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.
For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.
Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.
The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.
However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."
The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.
As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.
The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."
The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.
"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.
Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."
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