Why You Can't Seem To Focus In Online Classes: An Evolutionary Explanation

May 11, 2021

“Zoom Fatigue” is an increasingly popular term to describe the exhaustion you feel after any kind of video call or conference ever since the pandemic. This term is even coined by Stanford University [1].

I would like to re-term it as “Webex Fatigue” for the sake of Universiti Sains Malaysia.

“WEBEX FATIGUE”, used to describe the endless tiredness and emptiness that USM students, staff, and lecturers feel after any kind of Cisco Webex meeting.

Here are the symptoms to look out for if you suffer from Webex Fatigue:

1) You can’t seem to concentrate in class even though you try to force yourself to.

2) You scroll through your Instagram Stories and Feed / Facebook / TikTok throughout the lecture.

3) You think the online lectures are not helpful to your studies.

4) You sleep through lectures.

Why You Can't Seem To Focus

The popular explanation argues the concentration difficulty based on neuroscience, where it is described that the brain is overloaded with too much negative emotion, the part that helps to concentrate kind of ‘shut down’ a little. Think it like the low power mode on your phone where the performance slows down a bit [2].

Not a neuroscientist, not a psychologist, but as an evolution enthusiast, I have a different approach to decode the Science of Why-Cant-I-Focus-In-Classes-And-Meetings.

First, let’s get us all agree that:

A. We are hooked on social media.

Social media is so addictive because it exploits the human's need for social interaction. We crave for social interaction as humans (hominids) lived in a tribal system for millions of years, and that hardwired us to learn to coordinate with people in order to survive, literally. We are undoubtedly one of the most sociable animals and we still carry the genes that desire you to interact with people [3].

B. We miss the physical social interaction.

Online parties and gatherings just never feel the same as physical face-to-face hangouts. I like to always think that humans are just animals (well, scientifically we really just are, and we are no superior or inferior than any).

What can animals do to survive? They can receive sensory information (the classic five: Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, and Touch).

As long as you miss one sense, you would feel that something is missing out. Virtual meeting-ups often lack one of the most important natural recipes - visual cues (eg. lecturer's cam is off, or you cannot see other coursemates).

Before Bell invented the telephone, nobody actively listened to someone's voice without seeing the actual person. That would mean that for 1.8 million years [4] humans listen to other humans while seeing their face, facial expression, body language, gestures and more for social clues.

These two pieces of concepts are very important in explaining the concentration difficulty from an evolutionary perspective.

Online classes or meetings often lack the much needed visual cues to keep your brain focused.

Your brain is just so confused and thinking like:

“Where the heck does that human’s voice come from but I am not seeing the face? I want visual cues coupled with the audio!!!”

Hence you just scroll through Instagram or Facebook to pass time as a source of social interaction that your brain craves / was seeking for.

This also explains why people like to doodle, face the presenters, do other things during meetings, or hate speaking to a monitor, because your brain is just a simple man: it just wants some visual cues!

Afterthought: always wanted to write this but never got the right time & effort to do so. Also something that I wish to deliver. I hope lecturers who read this can maybe consider turning on their camera while teaching when the bandwidth is allowed, after all, it's science!