After more than a year of meeting on Zoom every month, the members of Amy Ettinger's book club recently tried something radical: They got together in real life.
The move was a fundamental departure from the routine. Ettinger had established the book club at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and she and five or six other women from around Santa Cruz, California, had met 13 times in virtual space.
From the beginning, the plan was to eventually transition into a face-to-face club. Finally, in late May, they achieved their goal, gathering outside in one member's yard.
Though the women were unfamiliar with how to act in person at first, the get-together quickly became effortless and fun, Ettinger said. The women shared stories about parenting during the pandemic. They smiled. They laughed. Sure, at some point, the women managed to discuss the book of the month, Bernardine Evaristo's "Girl, Woman, Other."
But really, it was all about bolstering connections.
"When we met on Zoom, we spent most of the time talking about the books," said Ettinger, a writer in Santa Cruz. "When we got together in person, it was like this circuit breaker experience — we talked less about the book and more about our lives. It was such a welcome change for all of us. Truly a relief."
In book clubs and in board rooms, among colleagues and friends, similar bonding experiences are playing out across the country as states ease restrictions sparked by COVID-19. A recent study might explain why.
As it turns out, there are real benefits to meeting face-to-face, according to the study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Real-life familiarization stimulates the brain differently and yields stronger and faster connections, the study reports.
Anatomy of a brain study
Neuroscientists Géza Gergely Ambrus, Gyula Kovács and their colleagues were interested in how we get to know new people in different situations.
The study was conducted at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany between February 2019 and earlier this year.
"Since the pandemic started, a lot of acquaintances have been made solely through video chat," Ambrus, the lead author, wrote in a recent email. "Just less than 200 years ago, photography was not even invented, while nowadays connecting with each other without face-to-face contact is a normal part of our lives. From the perspective of neuroscience, this leads to a multitude of exciting questions on how our brain perceives different ways of interacting, both online and off."
To dig deeper into this phenomenon, researchers separated study participants into three groups. Each group became familiar with two new people in a different way: personal interaction, by chatting with lab technicians; perceptual exposure, through an identity sorting game using still photographs; and media exposure, from watching a television show.
The strength of people's familiarity with each other, called the familiarity effect, was tied to the situation in which participants learned the new faces — personal interaction made the strongest difference, followed by media exposure. Perceptual exposure had little impact at all.
Researchers recorded participants' brain activity with an electroencephalogram (EEG), a device that detects electrical activity in the brain. They took these readings twice: once before participants became familiar with the new people, and once after. In all three groups, the second EEG reading revealed a distinct pattern of brain activity around 400 milliseconds after participants saw the now-familiar faces.
Face-to-face interactions yielded the strongest connections, even though participants spent less time in real life than the media exposure group: The personal interaction group chatted with lab techs for three hours, while the media exposure group watched 20 hours of video, Ambrus said.
The psychology behind F2F
The idea came from watching movies, Kovács said, after seeing actors in movies and interview clips online and feeling like he really "knew" them. Yet he knew they'd never met.
"What we have been experiencing in the last decades, with the advances in the media industry, are a lot of 'para-social' interactions," Kovács explained.
"When we watch a TV series, we might afterward feel like we recognize their faces, even though we never actually met the person," he said. "Nevertheless, our brain has been trained to become familiar with someone through direct personal interaction, which is why this is still the fastest way to get to know somebody."
Dr. Lucy McBride, a primary care doctor in Washington, D.C., agreed with the study's conclusions.
McBride, who was not involved in the study, noted that all substantive relationships hinge on in-person interactions and incorporate everything from body language to nuances that tiny video cameras cannot capture.
She said this broader context is particularly important for children, who need in-person human connection for socioemotional development. "The foundation of any healthy relationship is born out in the real world," said McBride, who recently penned an opinion piece on the subject for CNN.
"Relationships require trust and a safe, nonjudgmental space for open conversation and idea-sharing," she said. "A computer might provide some of that for a time, but over time we need more human connection than the pandemic afforded — for our overall health and well-being."
The lack of in-person connection during the pandemic has threatened our collective mental health, said Jennifer Kelman, a licensed clinical social worker in Boca Raton, Florida.
For this reason, Kelman said people should return to real-world meet-ups as soon as they feel it is safe.
"So much was lost in this last year," said Kelman, who serves as an on-demand psychology expert for JustAnswer.com. "Many of us have forgotten how to relate on a fundamental level, and it's important we get that back."
Great ways to connect IRL
The best way to put yourself in a position to see people face-to-face again is to get vaccinated. Recent messaging from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.
As euphoric as it might be to dive head-first into prepandemic activities, it also might feel a bit awkward to dial it back to 2019 all at once.
Kelman acknowledged this and noted that other constructive ways to ease back into the swing of face-to-face get-togethers might be outdoor gatherings such as the one Ettinger had with her book club, outdoor yoga or hiking in a park.
For those who are comfortable being indoors, large and uncrowded spaces are probably best at first.
"Every single one of us has the right to negotiate this pandemic in the way that feels right for them," said Kelman. "Yes, the deeper connections can only happen if you're interacting with someone face-to-face, but it's also perfectly OK if after 15 months of living through this trauma it takes you or someone else a while to get there."
Matt Villano is a writer in Healdsburg, California. He is ecstatic to be playing IRL poker with friends again.