TAMPERE: While we all know that video calling friends and family during the current Covid-19 lockdowns isn’t quite the same as spending time together in real life, new European research does have some good news about keeping in touch virtually, finding that video calls can cause similar physiological reactions as making eye contact in-person.
Carried out by researchers at Tampere University in Finland, the new small-scale study looked at 16 women and 16 men aged between 20 and 42 and measured their physical reactions to making eye contact in three situations: in-person interaction, a video call and just watching a video.
In each situation, the researchers measured two of the participants’ physiological responses to look at the activation of their autonomic nervous system, which is a control system in the body which acts mainly unconsciously.
These two measures included skin conductance, which is when the skin momentarily becomes a better conductor of electricity in response to certain stimuli, and their facial muscle activity, or in other words, what facial expressions they made.
The researchers also looked at the physiological responses caused by seeing another person’s direct gaze and averted gaze in each of the three situations.
The findings, published in the journal Psychophysiology, showed that eye contact during the video call produced similar psychophysiological responses to eye contact made when interacting with someone in real life.
The researchers also found that a direct gaze in all three situations activated the smile muscles and relaxed the frown muscles.
While a video call can’t replace many feelings we experience while spending time with loved ones, the researchers say that the results, which are in line with those produced by previous studies, suggest that our autonomic arousal response to another person’s eye contact may be quite similar during video and real-life interaction.
“Our results imply that the autonomic arousal response to eye contact requires the perception of being seen by another. Another person’s physical presence is not required for this effect,” says Jonne Hietanen, the first author of the study.
“Unexpectedly, we also found that even when the other person was presented just on video, seeing direct gaze elicited the subtle facial reactions of smiling.
“This suggests that these facial reactions are highly automated responses to eye contact,” Hietanen continues.
However, despite the increase in video calling at the moment, not all methods may elicit this response.
“Most present-day applications do not permit direct eye contact as the other person is usually seen with a slightly averted gaze.
“Therefore, it is not clear whether these affective similarities between in-person and video call interactions extend to the use of applications such as Skype,” Hietanen adds.