This is your brain on remote work: A neurologist explains


Working remotely doesn’t have to mean working alone. But if you’re not careful, you may look up from your laptop one day and realize your feline friend is the only colleague you’ve spoken to in days. For all the benefits of flexible work, let’s face it, our new work lives can be isolating.

The science of separation

How does working in this new form of isolation change our minds? Or rather, our brains? While we may feel it in our eyes first as we stare at screens all day, the real problem may be what’s going on behind our eyes. Researchers have begun to explore the impacts of remote work on our bodies, but it turns out the impact on our brains might be much more serious.

Lost in translation

Take the now-ubiquitous video conferencing. The cognitive load of taking all your meetings virtually is extremely taxing. It’s because our brains work overtime trying to “fill in the gaps” when there is missing information, says Anette Ermshar, a California-based clinical psychologist who specializes in neuropsychology. Like seeing Orion’s Belt in a random cluster of stars or even perceiving the existence of an amputated limb, our brains are always seeking to create patterns and connect the dots.

What does this have to do with my daily stand up?

“When you're in person, the brain is naturally designed to look for nonverbal cues as part of the communication process,” says Ermshar. “Nonverbal cues are things like body language, position of the body, hand gesturing. Those are all things that we look for to assist us in communication.”

But in a video call, information is only conveyed from the neck up. Even if our colleague is using their hands or engaging in direct eye contact, we might not see it on our end of the screen. And we definitely don’t get the full sensory impact.

“It contributes to more mental exhaustion because you're not getting those cues. Subconsciously the brain's trying to find those cues. The brain creates a story based on the patterns it's seeing. So now the story is based solely on the face. And that story may be different than it would be otherwise if you got the whole body in the constellation.”

When our brains make up a story to fill in gaps of information, exhaustion and misunderstanding come next. Those who don’t rely on those cues, like people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, are finding themselves less impacted.

“A lot of my (patients) who are not neurotypical have told me that remote learning is less stressful for them because they are not required to engage with that level of detail,” says Ermshar. “And so, it's a more consistent match with how they process information.”

Why our brains crave company

While the creation of missing cues is a big weight on cognitive load and can contribute to the potential for burnout, the impact of the isolation from others might be more extreme. From humans to fruit flies, the impact of isolation has been studied for decades. The verdict is in: Being cut off from social contact is not good. Isolated individuals decline rapidly.

One root of isolation is the inability to empathize and feel like we have connection to others. And it’s much easier to empathize with people we’re physically around. So what’s going on under the hood when we’re in close proximity to our creative counterparts? Our brains feel all the feels and ignite with excitement.

Specifically, mirror neurons fire when we observe someone doing something—creating, problem solving, brainstorming. To boil it down, the idea is that in some small way you are feeling what the other person feels when they are doing that task.

Ermshar says that when you're working alongside a partner, those mirror neurons are turbo boosted. But online work platforms limit one's ability to fully observe others in situ. As a result, it mutes the effect of these mirror neurons. It gives new meaning to the phrase, “You’re on mute.”

Here's the bad news: All of this adds up to an environment in which we literally age faster. “The amygdala, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the medial prefrontal cortex, which are all linked with the stress response, age prematurely when an individual experiences increased burnout.”

Staying connected

How do we combat this? We can help create a meeting culture where we make ourselves more observable on camera during meetings. Wider camera angles and more space for you to move in are a huge help. Standing desks are also great for this and other health and productivity benefits.

Finding new ways to create different kinds of stimulation for your brain is key. Much like you stretch a sore muscle by moving it in the opposite direction, find a different platform to create a different kind of connection. At work, you may even want to pick up that old relic, the telephone.

“I'm a huge fan of social engagement for all sorts of levels of mental health,” Ermshar says. “So whatever that looks like for people is fine, as long as it’s different from work.” Whatever you do, don’t stop talking to your cat. They may not be the best conversationalist, but they’ll love all of your ideas for your new PowerPoint presentation.