Lack of sleep may trigger loneliness, social isolation

A new study from the University of California, Berkeley has found that sleep deprivation may trigger loneliness and disengagement with others, similar to social anxiety. The effects of sleep loss could also make them socially unattractive and trigger a viral contagion when encountered by others.

“We humans are a social species. Yet sleep deprivation can turn us into social lepers,” said Matthew Walker, a researcher at UC Berkeley.

For the study, researchers initiated experiments on 18 healthy adults using fMRI brain imaging, videotaped simulations, and online surveys. The participants were examined for social and neural responses under two separate occasions: a full night of sleep and another while sleep-deprived.

Following each occasion, participants completed a standardized social distance task, where video clips were shown of individuals walking toward them. During an approach, participants could push a stop button indicating how close the individual was allowed to get to them.

Upon analysis, researchers concluded that the sleep-deprived group was more likely to push the button at a greater distance, between 18 and 60 percent further back, compared to their well-rested counterpart. They also observed from brain scans increased activity in a neural circuit called the “near space network,” which activates during perceived threats.

Moreover, for the online part of the study, researchers recruited 1,000 people to observe videotapes of the participants discussing commonplace opinions and activities.

Without knowledge of their sleep condition, observers were given a survey and asked to rate each participant based on how lonely they appeared. Based on the results, participants who were sleep-deprived were consistently rated as lonelier and also appeared more socially repulsive.

Observers were then asked to rate their own levels of loneliness after watching the videotapes. Among the observers, researchers quickly found that just watching a 60-second clip of an individual with sleep-loss-induced alienation was contagious enough to trigger feelings of loneliness.

The findings, researchers say, shine a spotlight on the significance of sleep deprivation, which, on a short-term basis, affects nearly 30 percent of adults in the U.S each year.

“This all bodes well if you sleep the necessary seven to nine hours a night, but not so well if you continue to short-change your sleep,” Walker said. “On a positive note, just one night of good sleep makes you feel more outgoing and socially confident, and furthermore, will attract others to you.”

The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.

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