Your poor zoomed out brain

Are you spending a lot of time learning, teaching, or meeting online these days? And do you find it puzzlingly exhausting?

There are things about video conferencing that we have not yet understood – or if we understand them, we haven’t incorporated them into the way we manage our days.

Our brains are deeply impressive, and really rather sneaky. They spend a lot of time processing things that we are completely unaware of. They are constantly scanning the world – for unexpected movement, for danger, for chocolate (or maybe that’s just mine), for the way people are behaving and reacting to us.

A whole lot of that scanning is never brought to our attention unless it really needs to be. My brain doesn’t need to tell me that there’s a room with no chocolate in it at all. But it absolutely does need to point out unexpected chocolate cake.

unexpected chocolate cake

So for the most part we are unaware of all of the extra work that’s going on in our subconscious. We often even have emotional reactions to things we are not consciously aware of – a tightening in someone’s voice, a minute change in their posture, or an unexpected noise in the distance.

When I am in the same room as someone, I am absorbing a lot of information about them without knowing that I am. From their body language to really subtle things like all of the different frequencies in their voice. Someone’s whole body, taken head to toe, can tell me a lot, much of which I’m not even aware of processing, about how they are feeling and responding to me.

“Who said I was worried?” Glenda snapped.
“You did. Your expression, your stance, the set of your body, your…reactions, your tone of voice. Everything.”
“You have no business to be looking at my everything!”  

Unseen Academicals. Terry Pratchett.

Every aspect of your body language and voice is another piece of information. Unfortunately we lose a huge number of those pieces when we connect via video conferencing.

The quality of a video conferencing call means that we get, at best 30 frames per second. Think of video as a really good stop motion animation. It’s actually a series of still images – photos, really – that are taken so quickly and stitched together so well that it looks seamless. Like a flip book animation where the flipping is done perfectly evenly and at just the right speed. But the human eye can process a lot more frames than that – some evidence says up to 500, or even 1000 frames per second. Which means that, face to face, we’re getting a much more detailed impression of what’s going on. We’re seeing minuscule changes in facial expression, voice quality, and posture, that give us a massive amount of information about the person we’re dealing with.

In video conferencing we get less than a tenth of that detail (and that’s just the visual, never mind the audio quality). That’s assuming the network is coping and there’s no glitching.

So when you’re watching a video, or sitting through a zoom call, your brain is actually working fiercely hard, trying to make sense of what, to it, is an incredibly glitchy image, even if it seems smooth to you. It’s trying to fill in the gaps from frame to frame, work out what is missing, and understand information that simply isn’t there. It presents you, where possible, with a smooth and seamless experience, but it has to work incredibly hard to do so.

Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? And that doesn’t take into account the fact that you can generally only see the head and shoulders, at most, of the people you’re meeting with (a whole lot more pieces of information gone missing), and there are network glitches, background noise, and interference that lower the video quality even further.

Most of what our brains do is outside our conscious control, or even our awareness.  And right now, we have a huge amount of work to do that we’re not used to, and that we don’t even know we’re doing, just to try to relate to the people “around” us, and maintain our connections, relationships, and workflow. The duck that’s our brain appears to be swimming along happily, but it’s paddling so fast under the water that its little legs might just fall off.

There are so many reasons why what we’re experiencing is wearing us down, but online calls are more challenging than they seem. So cut yourself some slack. Schedule breaks in between your online meetings. And look away from the computer as often as you can. Knowing how hard your brain is working to make sense of the world seems a good reason to give it a rest!



Perspective of a Year 12

This is a guest post from a Victorian Year 12 student. It gives you an insight into the pressures on our year 12s, and the stress created by endless speculation by both government and media about how year 12 will be handled. It is clear to me that the priority for these year 12 students living through an unprecedented era of trauma and disruption must be mental health, not maintaining outdated systems that we know do not work. 

My name is Zoe, and I’m in year twelve this year. At least for now.

I’m writing this on the 7th of April, the same day I found out that the Andrews Government is seriously considering extending the most stressful year of most people’s lives by several months, taking our summer holidays away, and best of all, still forcing us through our end of year exams if we want any semblance of a result, of proof that we attended thirteen years of schooling.

The entire concept of the ATAR is majorly flawed as-is. It puts ridiculous amounts of pressure on young people, it sets all the wrong standards for our lives, and teaches us all the wrong skills. It’s also known to be a terrible predictor of anything real-life related, such as university performance or success later in life.

And year twelve is the same. It is insane amounts of pressure, drawn out over a year, and culminating in the most stressful experience of many of our lives to date. All the same, I know I speak for the vast majority of year twelve students when I say we looked forward to this year. Sure, not the SACs, or the GAT, or final exams worth 60% of our grade, but we looked forward to our year twelve jackets, to being top dogs at school, to having a common room and our very own dress up days, and most of all to muck up day, and now we won’t get any of that. And that sucks. But we know it’s unavoidable, and many of us are doing as much as we can to help the world deal with this.

And now the Andrews government wants to screw us harder than ever before by sticking with a dated, systematically exclusionary system which pits year twelves against each other to get a score which is essentially meaningless in the real world. They want to extend our year into January, taking away my cohort’s first taste of real freedom, and force us to endure more stress and anxiety, all the while spouting the bull that they care about us, that they want us to get the most out of our education, and that they want us to do as well as possible.

Well now I have a bone to pick with the entire state government, and with VCAA. And a message for Mr Andrews: You aren’t fooling us. It’s clear that you don’t care about the class of 2020. If you did, you would have gotten rid of the ATAR for something better years ago, but especially now, when we are living through a deadly epidemic already having serious worldwide socioeconomic impacts. This, alone, has seriously affected our mental health, and you still want to force us to endure more stress. And for what? A ranking?

There are so many better options, even if you are insistent on giving us a meaningless result at the end of the year. We could get a rough score based on assessments we have already done, and advise universities and other institutions that they should not put so much weight on the ATAR.

We could scrap the ATAR entirely, and simply leave it up to universities to find other, more equal and representative ways to decide on entry to courses. And if Mr Andrews insists on forcing us to work though our summer holidays, we could at least get time off now to make up for that time.

The fact is, we know that the final year of schooling we looked forward to is gone, but if we, a group of sixteen to eighteen year olds with not much real life experience, can come up with better ideas in a few minutes while calling friends on snapchat, then you would damn well think a government of 128 elected officials could work something out. Something better than taking away our holidays so we conform to your dated ideas of educational success.

I am furious. With the coronavirus, with people who are still not washing their hands, and especially with the system that expects me to stay in year twelve for an extra 3 or 4 months because the people responsible for Australia and for the state of Victoria are too lazy to find a better option.