I first realised I hated Zoom early on in the WFH Revolution. Being on Zoom was sunken time — hours a week poured into an activity that felt futile and out-of-focus at the best of times. I often logged out feeling frustrated and drained, like I had achieved little, that I could have used the time better offline.
As Zoom becomes a ubiquitous and essential technology in the time of COVID-19, the phenomenon of Zoom fatigue emerges. Although the term it takes its name from the eponymous video-conferencing app that is driving the work-from-home ecosystem at present, this category of psychological inertia stems from any and all telecommunication interfaces (Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp can all produce similar fatigue). Almost overnight, video-conferencing has graduated from being a mere adjunct to our working and social lives to a technology on which these activities depend.
Mental exhaustion is not a new ailment. After periods of excessive cognitive work, the brain is not only temporarily diminished of its status as a powerful thinking machine: its emotional centers become depleted. In the context of video-conferencing, mental exhaustion, or mental fatigue, has morphed into something very specific, even endemic, although it is perhaps a little too early to conduct reliable research on the prevalence of Zoom fatigue in the general population.
Analysis of the COVID-era psyche’s latest affliction is cropping up all over the zeitgeist-y corners of the Internet. National Geographic’s Science section, in what could be construed as a nod of approval towards the phenomenon’s worthiness of scientific investigation in the not-so-distant-yet-definitely-uncertain future, unpacked the neuropsychology of Zoom fatigue in a recent article. It identified people with autism as a population that would likely have trouble adjusting to this new reality, a reasonable conjecture to make in the context of Zoom, given that chronic difficulties with social interaction and communication are the trademarks of autism spectrum disorder. Yet, I suspect that it is not just those on the autism spectrum that experience Zoom and its counterparts as uncomfortable, even hostile environments. For people living with other kinds of developmental disorders, learning, working and socializing virtually present a whole new set of challenges.
Dyspraxia, also known as developmental coordination disorder, is a lifelong neurological condition originating in childhood. While its clinical picture is by no means homogeneous, it is universally accepted as a disorder of motor planning and coordination. Praxis, a concept that appears in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx and many other members of history’s intelligentsia, is the process by which a learned skill is embodied and then deliberately enacted or applied in practice. Etymologically, praxis originates from the Ancient Greek word for an activity engaged in by free people. Praxis, according to Aristotle, is deliberate action carried out by a morally sound, rational being — the eupraxic.
Over the centuries, the term has bridged other categories of usage, spilling out from the pages of classical philosophy into political and medical lexicons. Modern professional usage, particularly in Occupational Therapy, distills and packages praxis to refer to cognitive processes that lead to motor action or output. In other words, the ability to formulate thoughts and translate these into meaningful action. Dyspraxia, therefore, is a disorder of praxis.
It was only after becoming an Occupational Therapist that I realized that I am an adult with dyspraxia. I was never diagnosed as a child, although I am almost certain that many of my everyday blunders — quirks more than impairments, really — developed in the early years. Having dug a little deeper into the condition, it is easy to see why dyspraxia is often referred to as an invisible disability.
According to Aristotle’s morally charged explanation of praxis, those of us with dyspraxia are neither rational nor deliberate doers. We are bad doers! (Clarification: Not doers of bad things. In terms of Greek antiquity, we do things in a bad, or inelegant, way. It seems the classical philosophers were not only supercilious about doing the right thing, but about doing the right thing in the right way).
I felt a sudden lucidity after discovering there was an underlying explanation for my quotidian clumsiness, arising from a medley of severe early childhood myopia, avoidance of most kinds of athletic activity, questionably established hand dominance and a weird pencil grip. There’s more. I tend to start in the middle and work backwards. I become overwhelmed in supermarkets, dazed by the sheer abundance and choice of late capitalism. I have an ‘unlock-handicap’, which means I struggle to unscrew jars, unlock doors, windows, or pretty much anything that can be opened and closed. The list of my dyspraxic traits, which could get long and mildly hypochondriac, also includes a dislike for following recipes sequentially, looking down when descending flights of stairs, and an inability to move my body in a sequence if I have to think too much about the movements rather than feel them.
My dyspraxia is mild enough to still permit me to paint, draw, type, sew, drive a car (although I failed thrice due to poor spatial perception in the parking module) and dance. My approach to these tasks, however, is generally disorganized and haphazard. More severe manifestations of dyspraxia are associated with significant impairment in routine activities such as taking care of oneself, socializing, learning at school or college, or driving. Dyspraxia is also linked to mental health challenges like anxiety, hyperactivity, panic attacks and low self-esteem, as well as sensory processing disorder, particularly when the brain experiences sensory overload in chaotic or copious environments.
Humanity’s most valuable trait in response to the current pandemic is its ability to demonstrate flexibility in our thoughts and behavior during a time of crisis. It is the urgency with which we pivot upon long-accepted status quos to invent novel solutions and workarounds that will determine our collective post-pandemic sustainability. Accepting and deliberately applying new ways of learning, working, living, and socializing is not something that those with dyspraxia are easily able to do. The dyspraxic brain has difficulty with mental flexibility and adaptability. We are unconsciously stubborn, often taking our time applying a learnt skill to a novel scenario. In other words, we really don’t like change.
1) Social cognition and communication
Perhaps the most significant functional domain affected by dyspraxia in the age of Zoom is social interaction. More specifically, dyspraxia affects social cognition, the way in which people process, store and apply information about other people according to intrinsic mental frameworks. Zoom is a technology that inherently reduces people’s social presence. In addition to obscuring facial expressions and other forms of essential non-verbal communication, sharing screen real estate with many others means that hand gestures and body postures from the collarbone down are automatically cropped out.
Many people with dyspraxia have trouble listening, particularly in large gatherings of participants. It is unsurprising, therefore, when faced with a crowd represented only by a mosaic of square boxes containing pixelated faces, it is near impossible for a dyspraxic person to engage meaningfully. If there is a speech and language component, such as developmental verbal dyspraxia, they may not be able to form speech sounds, words or sentences articulately or speedily enough to contribute meaningfully in a virtual space where multiple participants are competing for airtime, and where the possibility of parallel conversation is zero. This means that they will likely remain silent or passive participants for most of the session. Conversely, if auditory processing issues are part of their dyspraxia, they may speak too loudly on Zoom calls and unwittingly disturb others.
I’m usually a quieter participant on Zoom, but not because I’m unable to form words or sentences (this is known as oromotor dyspraxia). My silence is the product of two things: i) sensory overload that leads to frustration that results in my choosing silence rather than trying to compete with overpowering visual and auditory stimuli; and ii) difficulty entering the conversation at right time due to unclear social cues, which are further obscured by poor internet connection and audio delays. In general, I struggle with ‘social timing’. Even in IRL group settings, I tend to cut in at the wrong moment and end up feeling as though I’ve set the conversation off course rather than slotted in seamlessly with the natural social tempo. So again, more often than not, I choose to remain silent. Someone with my type of dyspraxia may interrupt at inopportune moments and impede teamwork, or, as in my case, remain tight-lipped for fear of mistiming their spoken input amid a detached sea of participants.
In addition to trying to make sense of today’s profoundly altered social environment, our physical and virtual existences have been plunged into unprecedented simultaneity. The digital avatar, its presence arguably more constant and unbroken than ever before, cannot be glibly switched on and off at will. The self and the avatar are more equal now than ever. Navigating the physical environment in relation to the self can be bewildering enough for someone with dyspraxia. Having to straddle both dimensions is doubly so. The dyspraxic brain simply does not have the bandwidth to process the split-screen social environment that has become the new norm.
2) Sensory and cognitive processing
Meetings, whether virtual or IRL, require an element of thinking on one’s feet. A person with dyspraxia would be familiar with the ‘esprit d’escalier’ phenomenon, or the sensation of having something good to say only once the moment has passed. Add a layer of awkward virtual reality, and it’s all the more reason for your important input never to see the light of day. In my experience, this persistent feeling of having let the moment elude you fuels anxiety that spirals into a self-fulfilling prophecy of silence and avoidance.
Furthermore, sensory processing disorder is associated with dyspraxia and can manifest as over- or under-sensitivity to certain stimuli, such as sound, smell and visual input. Being on Zoom places the greatest demand on auditory and visual senses. If one has auditory over-sensitivity, a particularly loud or garrulous Zoom participant can quickly create sensory overload. If the sensitivity is visual, a full virtual meeting room is a recipe for stage fright.
3) Attention and concentration
There are numerous distractions possible, both virtually and in the physical environment during a Zoom call — a pet or child entering the scene unexpectedly; a knock on someone’s door announcing a delivery; live-in partners swanning around in the background; pop-ups pinging on your desktop; the temptation to furtively open your browser in an adjacent window during a particularly dull part of the meeting.
Dyspraxia, known to affect attention, often presents concurrently with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). There are five distinct types of clinical attention: focused, sustained, divided, selective and alternating. Zoom demands the most of selective, focused and alternating attention.
Selective attention is the process of focusing on and responding to one specific element at a time on a backdrop of competing or distracting stimuli. In a Zoom meeting, this might mean maintaining one’s train of thought while expressing an idea or making a point, or listening attentively to a single speaker even when other participants are fidgeting, adjusting their camera angles, or moving in and out of view.
Focused attention allows us to focus on and respond to specific types of stimuli at the appropriate time. For example, focusing on the primary visual stimulus of a shared-screen document on Zoom without paying too much attention to secondary auditory stimuli like background noise.
Lastly, as we negotiate our freshly wrought virtual and physical worlds, the proximity of which allows us to fluidly transition between our work and domestic lives a moment’s notice, alternating attention has become an essential skill. In the WFH era, it’s often impossible to ignore or filter out the demands that arise from the unseen space surrounding our virtual portholes. Shifting one’s attention away from a work task on Zoom to a family member who’s just entered the room urgently needing something, and then back to Zoom is an example of alternating attention. It takes skill to pull this off without becoming derailed from the task you were tackling prior to the interruption.
My own image is a major distractor on Zoom, and certainly not for reasons of vanity! Nobody should be able see a mirror image of themselves while socializing, period. It’s pretty disarming, even Freudian-level uncanny in its doubling effect. I find myself becoming preoccupied with adjusting my hair and rearranging my expressions, avoiding touching my face, or generally trying not to do anything weird while video-conferencing.
Ordinarily, we use muscle memory and proprioception to generate facial expressions and non-verbals when communicating. We don’t have mirrors giving us visual feedback about our facial arrangements when chatting to people at parties. It has to happen intuitively. Because people with dyspraxia often struggle to spontaneously generate responsive and appropriate facial expressions, the visual input from Zoom might actually be a rare plus in this example. Perhaps someone will test this hypothesis someday.
Proprioception, or the innate awareness of the body’s position in space in relation to its environment, is a weak area in dyspraxia. A dyspraxic Zoom participant might struggle to position themselves in front of the camera at an optimal angle for participation. If the meeting requires physical objects to be held up and shown on camera, the dyspraxic brain may take longer to figure out the correct orientation and angle at which to display the object of interest. When it comes to left-right discrimination — the ability to differentiate between left and right sides of the body — a dyspraxic person would likely be the first to confuse which hand to raise in a sworn statement. And it doesn’t help that left and right are reversed when you’re communicating through a webcam.
Along with the self-monitoring and heightened self-awareness, Zoom fatigue is attributed to our tendency to ‘over-emoting’, as described in the National Geographic article. This is a form of emotional compensation, or hyper-expression, employed to make up for one’s diluted social presence and the deficits innate to the video-conferencing medium (pixelated visuals, reduced subtlety of social cues, absence of hand gestures, a general lack of human-to-human intimacy). For someone with autism and dyspraxia, conditions which often present co-morbidly, interpreting social cues and responding appropriately to these do not come naturally. For this group, the psycho-emotional effects of prolonged Zoom time are especially pronounced.
Dyspraxia has nothing to do with intelligence. It is comparable to an occasional — in my case, mostly benign — short circuiting in the brain when neurons don’t always make the right connections at the right times, resulting in poorly timed actions and general awkwardness in select everyday activities. For others, however, it can be more severe, even debilitating.
The phenomenon of Zoom fatigue is steadily rising to the forefront of collective consciousness in the general population. For people with dyspraxia and other developmental disorders, it is probable that this unique form of mental exhaustion is significantly more prevalent. Considering video-conferencing technology’s heavy demands on social, spatial and cognitive resources, I believe this population is more likely to experience Zoom fatigue, among other, yet-to-be-identified consequences.
In this moment of rapid, sudden change, it is important to consider the ways in which shifting methods of communication and re-imagined proximities for human intimacy affect groups of people like those living with dyspraxia. Invisible disabilities can easily fall through the cracks of tectonic societal shifts like those we’re experiencing presently. There’ll come a time when Occupational Therapists like me will need to devise therapeutic interventions that target virtual occupations as well as physical, starting with the factors that influence video-conferencing fatigue.