What Are the Real Causes of Zoom Fatigue? And What Are the Possible Solutions?: New Research from Stanford Offers Answers

The technology we put between ourselves and others tends to always create additional strains on communication, even as it enables near-constant, instant contact. When it comes to our now-primary mode of interacting — staring at each other as talking heads or Brady Bunch-style galleries — those stresses have been identified by communication experts as “Zoom fatigue,” now a subject of study among psychologists who want to understand our always-connected-but-mostly-isolated lives in the pandemic, and a topic for Today show segments like the one above.

As Stanford researcher Jeremy Bailenson vividly explains to Today, Zoom fatigue refers to the burnout we experience from interacting with dozens of people for hours a day, months on end, through pretty much any video conferencing platform. (But, let’s face it, mostly Zoom.) We may be familiar with the symptoms already if we spend some part of our day on video calls or lessons. Zoom fatigue combines the problems of overwork and technological overstimulation with unique forms of social exhaustion that do not plague us in the office or the classroom.




Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, refers to this kind of burnout as “Nonverbal Overload,” a collection of “psychological consequences” from prolonged periods of disembodied conversation. He has been studying virtual communication for two decades and began writing about the current problem in April of 2020 in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that warned, “software like Zoom was designed to do online work, and the tools that increase productivity weren’t meant to mimic normal social interaction.”

Now, in a new scholarly article published in the APA journal Technology, Mind, and Behavior, Bailenson elaborates on the argument with a focus on Zoom, not to “vilify the company,” he writes, but because “it has become the default platform for many in academia” (and everywhere else, perhaps its own form of exhaustion). The constituents of nonverbal overload include gazing into each others’ eyes at close proximity for long periods of time, even when we aren’t speaking to each other.

Anyone who speaks for a living understands the intensity of being stared at for hours at a time. Even when speakers see virtual faces instead of real ones, research has shown that being stared at while speaking causes physiological arousal (Takac et al., 2019). But Zoom’s interface design constantly beams faces to everyone, regardless of who is speaking. From a perceptual standpoint, Zoom effectively transforms listeners into speakers and smothers everyone with eye gaze.

On Zoom, we also have to expend much more energy to send and interpret nonverbal cues, and without the context of the room outside the screen, we are more apt to misinterpret them. Depending on the size of our screen, we may be staring at each other as larger-than-life talking heads, a disorienting experience for the brain and one that lends more impact to facial expressions than may be warranted, creating a false sense of intimacy and urgency. “When someone’s face is that close to ours in real life,” writes Vignesh Ramachandran at Stanford News, “our brains interpret it as an intense situation that is either going to lead to mating or to conflict.”

Unless we turn off the view of ourselves on the screen — which we generally don’t do because we’re conscious of being stared at — we are also essentially sitting in front of a mirror while trying to focus on others. The constant self-evaluation adds an additional layer of stress and taxes the brain’s resources. In face-to-face interactions, we can let our eyes wander, even move around the room and do other things while we talk to people. “There’s a growing research now that says when people are moving, they’re performing better cognitively,” says Bailenson. Zoom interactions, conversely, can inhibit movement for long periods of time.

“Zoom fatigue” may not be as dire as it sounds, but rather the inevitable trials of a transitional period, Bailenson suggests. He offers solutions we can implement now: using the “hide self-view” button, muting our video regularly, setting up the technology so that we can fidget, doodle, and get up and move around…. Not all of these are going to work for everyone — we are, after all, socialized to sit and stare at each other on Zoom; refusing to participate might send unintended messages we would have to expend more energy to correct. Bailenson further describes the phenomenon in the BBC Business Daily podcast interview above.

“Videoconferencing is here to stay,” Bailenson admits, and we’ll have to adapt. “As media psychologists it is our job,” he writes to his colleagues in the new article, to help “users develop better use practices” and help “technologists build better interfaces.” He mostly leaves it to the technologists to imagine what those are, though we ourselves have more control over the platform than we collectively acknowledge. Could we maybe admit, Bailenson writes, that “perhaps a driver of Zoom fatigue is simply that we are taking more meetings than we would be doing face-to-face”?

Read about the “Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale (ZEF Scale)” developed by Bailenson and his colleagues at Stanford and the University of Gothenburg here. Then take the survey yourself, and see where you rank in the ZEF categories of general fatigue, visual fatigue, social fatigue, motivational fatigue, and emotional fatigue.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

De-Stress with 30 Minutes of Relaxing Visuals from Director Hayao Miyazaki

What does it mean to describe something as relaxing?

Most of us would agree that a relaxing thing is one that quiets both mind and body.

There’s scientific evidence to support the stress-relieving, restorative effects of spending time in nature.

Even go-go-go city slickers with a hankering for excitement and adventure tend to understand the concept of “relaxing” as something slow-paced and surprise-free.

HBO Max is touting its collection of animation master Hayao Miyazaki‘s films with 30 Minutes of Relaxing Visuals from Studio Ghibli, above.




Will all of us experience those 30 minutes as “relaxing”?

Maybe not.

Studio Ghibli fans may find themselves gripped by a sort of trivia contest competitiveness, shouting the names of the films that supply these pastoral visions—PonyoGrave of the Fireflies!! Howl’s Moving Castle!!! 

Fledgling animators may feel as if they’ve swallowed a stone—no matter how hard I try, nothing I make will approach the beauty on display here.

Sticklers—and there are plenty leaving comments on YouTube—may be irritated to realize that it’s actually not 30 but 6 minutes of visuals, looped 5 times.

Insomniacs (such as this reporter) may wish there was more looping and less content. The selected scenery is tranquil enough, but the clips themselves are brief, leading to some jarring transitions.

(One possible workaround for those hoping to lull themselves to sleep: fiddle with the speed settings. Played at .25 and muted, this compilation becomes very relaxing, much like artist Douglas Gordon’s video installation, 24 Hour Psycho. Leave the sound up and the lapping waves, gentle winds, and chuffing trains turn into something worthy of a slasher flick.

Finally, with so much attention focussed on Mars these days, we can’t help imagining what alien life forms might make of these earthly visions—ahh, this green, sheep-dotted pasture does lower my stress level… waitWTF was THAT!? Nothing on my home planet prepared me for the possibility of a monstrous winged house comprised of overgrown bagpipes and chicken legs lumbering through the countryside!

We concede that 30 Minutes of Relaxing Visuals from Studio Ghibli is a pleasant thing to have playing in the background as we wait for COVID restrictions to be lifted… but ultimately, you may find these 36 minutes of music from Studio Ghibli films more genuinely relaxing.

via Kottke

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Algerian Cave Paintings Suggest Humans Did Magic Mushrooms 9,000 Years Ago

We moderns might wonder what ancient peoples did when not hunting, gathering, and reproducing. The answer is that they did mushrooms, at least according to one interpretation of cave paintings at Tassili n’Ajjer in Algeria, some of which go back 9,000 years. “Here are the earliest known depictions of shamans with large numbers of grazing cattle,” writes ethnobotanist/mystic Terence McKenna in his book Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge. “The shamans are dancing with fists full of mushrooms and also have mushrooms sprouting out of their bodies. In one instance they are shown running joyfully, surrounded by the geometric structures of their hallucinations. The pictorial evidence seems incontrovertible.”

McKenna wasn’t the only scholar of the psychedelic experience to take an interest in Tassili. Giorgio Samorini had written about its ancient paintings a few years before, focusing on one that depicts “a series of masked figures in line and hieratically dressed or dressed as dancers surrounded by long and lively festoons of geometrical designs of different kinds.” Each dancer “holds a mushroom-like object in the right hand,” but the key visual element is the parallel lines that “come out of this object to reach the central part of the head of the dancer.” These “could signify an indirect association or non-material fluid passing from the object held in the right hand and the mind,” an interpretation in line with the idea of “the universal mental value induced by hallucinogenic mushrooms and vegetals, which is often of a mystical and spiritual nature.”

The U.S. Forest Service acknowledges Tassili as “the oldest known petroglyph depicting the use of psychoactive mushrooms,” adding the postulate that “the mushrooms depicted on the ‘mushroom shaman’ are Psilocybe mushrooms.” That name will sound familiar to 21st-century consciousness-alteration enthusiasts, some of whom advocate for the use of psilocybin, the psychedelic compound that occurs in such mushrooms, as not just a recreational drug but a treatment for conditions like depression. Cave art like Tassili’s suggests that such instrumental uses of hallucinogenic plants — as vital parts of rituals, for example — may stretch all the way back to the Neolithic era, when last the Sahara desert was a relatively verdant savanna rather than the vast expanse of sand we know today.

A sense of continuity with the practices of these long-ago predecessors — ancient Egyptians to the ancient Egyptians, as one Redditor frames it — must enrich mushroom use for many psychonauts today. And indeed, the “bee-headed shaman” and his compatriots have had a robust cultural afterlife: “A popularly published drawing based on one of the Tassili figures has become an icon of post-1990’s psychedelia,” says Brian Akers of Mushroom: The Journal of Wild Mushrooming. The “abstract-bizarre” style of its images have also put it “among the sites favored by ancient ET theorizing.” However rich the visions experienced by the cave-painters who once lived there, surely none could have been as mind-blowing as the idea that their work would still fire up imaginations nine millennia later.

via Reddit

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Was a 32,000-Year-Old Cave Painting the Earliest Form of Cinema?

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Resilience Skills in a Time of Uncertainty: A Free Course from the University of Pennsylvania

Resilience Skills in a Time of Uncertainty. Who could use a course on resilience these days? To get you through this winter of discontent, the University of Pennsylvania has created a free version of Dr. Karen Reivich’s “Resilience Skills” course. (It’s part of the Foundations of Positive Psychology Specialization offered through Coursera.) This course teaches students to 1.) understand the protective factors that make one resilient, 2.) make use of non-cognitive strategies that decrease anxiety, 3.) recognize thinking traps and how they undercut resilience, and 4.) create a buffer of positivity that boosts resilience in stressful situations.

The course technically runs four weeks, but it can be binge-watched at whatever rate you like. The course draws on the instructor’s book, The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. To take the course for free, select the “Audit” option during the registration process.

Resilience Skills in a Time of Uncertainty will be added to our collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Energy Accumulator Was Beloved by William S. Burroughs and Banned by the FDA: Find Plans to Build the Controversial Device Online

Was Austrian Marxist psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich a trenchant socio-political thinker or a total crank? A fraud or a prophet? Maybe a little from each column, at different times during the course of his bizarre career. An enthusiastic student of Sigmund Freud, Reich applied his teacher’s theories of repressed libido to the frightening political theater of the 1930s, writing against the spread of Nazism in his prescient 1933 book The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Here, Reich brought Marx and Freud together to argue that sexual inhibition and fear led to arrested development and submission to authoritarianism.

Reich was “a sexual evangelist,” Christoper Turner writes at The Guardian, “who held that satisfactory orgasm made the difference between sickness and health.” His work was banned and burned by the Nazis, and he fled to a succession of Scandinavian countries, then to the U.S. in 1939, “by which time his former psychoanalytic colleagues were questioning his sanity.” The primary reason for their suspicion: Reich’s devotion to what he called “orgone,” an all-pervasive sexual energy that permeates the universe… according to Reich. Orgone and related concepts appear in his early work, but by the end of the 1930s, they came to entirely dominate his thinking.




“In the strange and colorful history of pseudoscience, Wilhelm Reich’s ‘discovery’ of orgone—a substance that’s not only a life force, but indeed makes up the very fabric of space—must surely be a watershed,” writes Matt Simon at Wired. Reich intensified his belief in the glowing blue energy of orgone with the invention of the Orgone Energy Accumulator, an isolation box that supposedly charged those who sat inside it with the power of orgone. The device went through a few iterations (see the use of the “orgone blanket, above), until its final form of a metal-lined box roughly the size of a wardrobe or telephone booth.

Reich’s influence on 20th century culture goes far beyond the creation of this weird device. He might be said to have predicted and precipitated what he himself called the “sexual revolution.” (“No power on earth will stop it,” Reich wrote in the 30s.) Critics dismissed his belief in the liberating potential of free love as a “genitial utopia.” Their scorn mattered little to the countercultural figures who picked up and disseminated his work. “Almost a century” after Reich’s invention of orgone, writes Simon, “his bonkers ideas live on,” including the notion that nearly every health condition can be traced to an imbalance of orgone energy.

The Orgone Accumulator was popularized by William S. Burroughs, a true believer—as he was in many things, from Scientology to Shamanism—and an enthusiastic promoter of “life in orgone boxes.” (Jack Kerouac called Burroughs’ accumulator a “mystical outhouse” in On the Road.) Burroughs swore by the accumulator and wrote a 1977 article for Oui magazine in which he defended Reich’s claims that time spent in the sealed box might cure cancer—a claim that prompted the FDA to file an injunction against Reich in 1954 to stop use of the device and literature pertaining to it.

“Reich continued profiting from the accumulators,” writes Simon, “and the court found him in contempt of the injunction. He was sentenced to federal prison, where he died in 1957.” Devotees of his work have defended him ever since. (“Who is the FDA,” wrote Burroughs indignantly, “to deprive cancer patients of any treatment that could be efficacious?”). James DeMeo, Ph.D., director of the Orgone Biophysical Research Laboratory in Ashland Oregon, has recently released the 3rd, revised and expanded, edition of his Orgone Accumulator Handbook, a thorough reference guide, “with construction plans.”

Should you have the desire to build your own “mystical outhouse,” DeMeo’s text would seem to be a definitive reference. Proceed at your own risk. Wilhelm Reich’s orgone therapy remains squarely on a list of treatments unapproved by the FDA. The FBI, on the other hand, who “have a whole section on their website dedicated to Wilhelm Reich,” notes Mary Bellis, found no cause to prosecute the Austrian psychologist. “In 1947,” they note, “a security investigation concluded that neither the Orgone Project nor any of its staff were engaged in subversive activities.” But what could have been more subversive to the post-war U.S. establishment than maintaining the world’s ills could be cured by really good sex? Download a free copy of DeMeo’s book here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Can You Do About QAnon?: A Short Take from Documentary Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson

You know that QAnon supporters figured prominently in the Capitol insurrection. Two QAnon conspiracy theorists now hold seats in Congress. And perhaps you read the disturbing profile this weekend about the QAnon supporter who attended the elite Dalton School in Manhattan and then Harvard. So–you’re maybe thinking–it’s finally worth understanding what QAnon is, and what we can do about it. Above, watch a 10 minute Op-Doc from filmmaker Kirby Ferguson, whose work we’ve featured here before. As you’ll see, his recommendations (from late October) align with expert advice found in our recent post, How to Talk with a Conspiracy Theorist: What the Experts Recommend. After the violence of January 6, however, it’s reasonable to ask whether we need something more than coddling and patience.

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How to Talk with a Conspiracy Theorist: What the Experts Recommend

Why do people pledge allegiance to views that seem fundamentally hostile to reality? Maybe believers in shadowy, evil forces and secret cabals fall prey to motivated reasoning. Truth for them is what they need to believe in order to get what they want. Their certainty in the justness of a cause can feel as comforting as a warm blanket on a winter’s night. But conspiracy theories go farther than private delusions of grandeur. They have spilled into the streets, into the halls of the U.S. Capitol building and various statehouses. Conspiracy theories about a “stolen” 2020 election are out for blood.

As distressing as such recent public spectacles seem at present, they hardly come near the harm accomplished by propaganda like Plandemic—a short film that claims the COVID-19 crisis is a sinister plot—part of a wave of disinformation that has sent infection and death rates soaring into the hundreds of thousands.




We may never know the numbers of people who have infected others by refusing to take precautions for themselves, but we do know that the number of people in the U.S. who believe conspiracy theories is alarmingly high.

A Pew Research survey of adults in the U.S. “found that 36% thought that these conspiracy theories” about the election and the pandemic “were probably or definitely true,” Tanya Basu writes at the MIT Technology Review. “Perhaps some of these people are your family, your friends, your neighbors.” Maybe you are conspiracy theorist yourself. After all, “it’s very human and normal to believe in conspiracy theories…. No one is above [them]—not even you.” We all resist facts, as Cass Sunstein (author of Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas) says in the Vox video above, that contradict cherished beliefs and the communities of people who hold them.

So how do we distinguish between reality-based views and conspiracy theories if we’re all so prone to the latter? Standards of logical reasoning and evidence still help separate truth from falsehood in laboratories. When it comes to the human mind, emotions are just as important as data. “Conspiracy theories make people feel as though they have some sort of control over the world,” says Daniel Romer, a psychologist and research director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. They’re airtight, as Wired shows below, and it can be useless to argue.

Basu spoke with experts like Romer and the moderators of Reddit’s r/ChangeMyView community to find out how to approach others who hold beliefs that cause harm and have no basis in fact. The consensus recommends proceeding with kindness, finding some common ground, and applying a degree of restraint, which includes dropping or pausing the conversation if things get heated. We need to recognize competing motivations: “some people don’t want to change, no matter the facts.”

Unregulated emotions can and do undermine our ability to reason all the time. We cannot ignore or dismiss them; they can be clear indications something has gone wrong with our thinking and perhaps with our mental and physical health. We are all subjected, though not equally, to incredible amounts of heightened stress under our current conditions, which allows bad actors like the still-current U.S. President to more easily exploit universal human vulnerabilities and “weaponize motivated reasoning,” as University of California, Irvine social psychologist Peter Ditto observes.

To help counter these tendencies in some small way, we present the resources above. In Bill Nye’s Big Think answer to a video question from a viewer named Daniel, the longtime science communicator talks about the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. “The way to overcome that,” he says, is with the attitude, “we’re all in this together. Let’s learn about this together.”

We can perhaps best approach those who embrace harmful conspiracy theories by not immediately telling them that we know more than they do. It’s a conversation that requires some intellectual humility and acknowledgement that change is hard and it feels really scary not to know what’s going on. Below, see an abridged version of MIT Technology Review’s ten tips for reasoning with a conspiracy theorist, and read Basu’s full article here.

  1. Always, always speak respectfully: “Without respect, compassion, and empathy, no one will open their mind or heart to you. No one will listen.”
  2. Go private: Using direct messages when online “prevents discussion from getting embarrassing for the poster, and it implies a genuine compassion and interest in conversation rather than a desire for public shaming.”
  3. Test the waters first: “You can ask what it would take to change their mind, and if they say they will never change their mind, then you should take them at their word and not bother engaging.”
  4. Agree: “Conspiracy theories often feature elements that everyone can agree on.”
  5. Try the “truth sandwich”: “Use the fact-fallacy-fact approach, a method first proposed by linguist George Lakoff.”
  6. Or use the Socratic method: This “challenges people to come up with sources and defend their position themselves.”
  7. Be very careful with loved ones: “Biting your tongue and picking your battles can help your mental health.”
  8. Realize that some people don’t want to change, no matter the facts.
  9. If it gets bad, stop: “One r/ChangeMyView moderator suggested ‘IRL calming down’: shutting off your phone or computer and going for a walk.”
  10. Every little bit helps. “One conversation will probably not change a person’s mind, and that’s okay.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Social Psychologist Erich Fromm Diagnoses Why People Wear a Mask of Happiness in Modern Society (1977)

Modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine. —Erich Fromm

There are more think pieces published every day than any one person can read about our current moment of social disintegration. But we seem to have lost touch with the insights of social psychology, a field that dominated popular intellectual discourse in the post-war 20th century, largely due to the influential work of German exiles like Erich Fromm. The humanist philosopher and psychologist’s “prescient 1941 treasure Escape from Freedom,writes Maria Popova, serves as what he called “‘a diagnosis rather than a prognosis,’ written during humanity’s grimmest descent into madness in WWII, laying out the foundational ideas on which Fromm would later draw in considering the basis of a sane society,” the title of his 1955 study of alienation, conformity, and authoritarianism.

Fromm “is an unjustly neglected figure,” Kieran Durkin argues at Jacobin, “certainly when compared with his erstwhile Frankfurt School colleagues, such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno.” But he has much to offer as a “grounded alternative” to their critical theory, and his work “reveals a distinctly more optimistic and hopeful engagement with the question of radical social change.” Nonetheless, Fromm well understood that social diseases must be identified before they can be treated, and he did not sugarcoat his diagnoses. Had society become more “sane” thirty-plus years after the war? Fromm didn’t think so.




In the 1977 interview clip above, Fromm defends his claim that “We live in a society of notoriously unhappy people,” which the interviewer calls an “incredible statement.” Fromm replies:

For me it isn’t incredible at all, but if you just open your eyes, you see it. That is, most people pretend that they are happy, even to themselves, because if you are unhappy, you are considered a failure, so you must wear the mask of being satisfied, of happy.

Contrast this observation with Albert Camus’ 1959 statement, “Today happiness is like a crimenever admit it. Don’t say ‘I’m happy’ otherwise you will hear condemnation all around.” Were Fromm and Camus observing vastly different cultural worlds? Or is it possible that in the intervening years, forced happinessakin to the socially coerced emotions Camus depicted in The Strangerhad become normalized, a screen of denial stretched over existential dread, economic exploitation, and social decay?

Fromm’s diagnosis of forced happiness resonates strongly with The Stranger (and Billie Holiday), and with the image-obsessed society in which we live most of our lives now, presenting various curated personae on social media and videoconferencing apps. Unhappiness may be a byproduct of depression, violence, poverty, physical illness, social alienation… but its manifestations produce even more of the same: “Them that’s got shall get / Them that’s not shall lose.” If you’re unhappy, says Fromm, “you lose credit on the market, you’re no longer a normal person or a capable person. But you just have to look at people. You only have to see how behind the mask there is unrest.”

Have we learned how to look at people behind the mask? Is it possible to do so when we mostly interact with them from behind a screen? These are the kinds of questions Fromm’s work can help us grapple with, if we’re willing to accept his diagnosis and truly reckon with our unhappiness.

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Albert Camus Explains Why Happiness Is Like Committing a Crime—”You Should Never Admit to it” (1959)

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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