Technology-assisted communication may impair brain development

summary: Face-to-face interactions triggered nine significant cross-brain connections between the frontal and temporal regions of the brain, while distance connections produced only one.

Source: University of Montreal

Video conferencing services are proliferating—there’s Zoom, Teams, Messenger, FaceTime, Skype, and WhatsApp—and since the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve seen more use than ever.

While the transition to technology-enhanced communication has permeated all aspects of social life over the past three years, there is little scientific literature on its impact on the social mind.

Could interactions mediated by technology have neurobiological consequences that interfere with the development of social and cognitive abilities?

An international research team including Guillaume Dumas, professor in the department of psychiatry and addiction at the University of Montreal and principal investigator in the Laboratory of Precision Psychiatry and Social Physiology at CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center, wanted to find out.

Dumas is also an Associate Academic Member of Mila, the Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Quebec, and holds the IVADO Chair in Artificial Intelligence and Mental Health. His research interests include social neuroscience, systems biology, and artificial intelligence.

In this study, the research team compared the electrical activity of the brain during face-to-face interaction and technology-assisted distance communication in 62 pairs of mothers and children between the ages of 10 and 14.

Using a technology called superscanning, which can simultaneously record brain activity in multiple subjects, the research team found that interaction via a video conferencing platform dampens brain synchronization between mother and child.

Literally on the same wavelength

Several years ago, Dumas showed that human brains tend to automatically synchronize when engaging in social interaction—that is, their electrical rhythms oscillate at the same frequency.

“Brain-brain synchronization is linked to the development of social cognition,” Dumas explained. “The echo between the brains enables children to learn to distinguish between self and others, and to learn about social relationships.”

The study found that face-to-face interactions triggered nine significant cross-brain connections between the frontal and temporal regions of the brain, while distant interactions generated only one.

“If brain-to-brain synchronization is disrupted, we can expect consequences for a child’s cognitive development, particularly the mechanisms that underpin social interaction,” Dumas said. “These are lifelong effects.”

Basically social beings

In light of the findings, Dumas believes more research is needed on the potential impact of social technology on brain maturation, especially in young adults. In particular, he questions the appropriateness of online education for teens.

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The study found that face-to-face interactions triggered nine significant cross-brain connections between the frontal and temporal regions of the brain, while distant interactions generated only one. The image is in the public domain

He said, “I wonder about the digitization of education and the impact of the pandemic on the development of social awareness among young people, at a time when human relations are fragmented.”

“It’s an important but difficult question to answer, given that the full effects won’t be known for 10, 15 or 20 years.”

According to Dumas, the results of the study can also be extrapolated to adults and may explain the widespread “zoom fatigue” following the rise in video conferencing during the COVID lockdown: “As online interactions produce less brain-to-brain synchronization, it is understandable that people will feel they have to exert More effort and energy to interact. “The interactions seem more laborious and less natural.”

Dumas believes the study confirms that social relationships are extremely important to humans and that interbrain mechanisms are linked to the development of the social brain.

He said: “These results are consistent with the results of a study we conducted on the strength of the mother’s scent and another that found that emotional touch from a romantic partner has the ability to reduce pain.”

Humans seem to be connected to each other by a technology more powerful than Zoom or Teams: our brains.

About this neural development and communication research news

author: press office
Source: University of Montreal
Contact: Press Office – University of Montreal
picture: The image is in the public domain

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