Sleep-deprived people tend to feel lonely and avoid social contact, a new study finds. Not only were sleep-deprived participants more likely to isolate themselves, but they also tended to repel other people — further driving their loneliness. What’s more, even well-rested people were more likely to feel lonely after encountering a sleep-deprived person.
This feedback loop suggests both that sleep deprivation might trigger social isolation and that these feelings of loneliness might be contagious. These findings led the researchers to conclude sleep deprivation might play a role in the national loneliness epidemic.
The study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications, is the first research to identify and explore the two-way relationship between sleep loss and social isolation.
Sleep Deprivation And Social Withdrawal
The researchers used a number of experiments and tools to track the relationship between sleep deprivation and loneliness. These included videotaped simulations, standardized measures of loneliness, fMRI brain imaging, and surveys conducted via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk online marketplace.
They began by evaluating social and neural responses in 18 healthy young adults after a sound night’s sleep and after a night of poor sleep. After each night, participants watched video clips of individuals walking toward them. The participants were instructed to push a button whenever it felt like the person on the video was getting too close. The researchers then recorded this distance.
These recordings suggested that sleep-deprived participants kept a significantly greater distance between themselves and the approaching person compared to well-rested participants. In total, sleep-deprived participants kept 18 to 60 percent more space between themselves and the person on video. The researchers took these preferences to mean that sleep-deprived participants were less inclined toward social engagement.
In addition to tracking these distances, the researchers also scanned the brains of participants as they watched the videos. The brains of sleep-deprived participants demonstrated more activation in an area of the brain responsible for perceiving potential human threats. At the same time, a neural circuit that typically promotes social interaction showed little to no activation. This brain activity further reinforces the idea that sleep deprivation may provoke social withdrawal.
Sleep Deprivation And Social Rejection
For the next part of the study, researchers recruited over 1,000 participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace to watch videos of study participants talking about everyday activities and opinions. The online observers were not informed that the subjects were sleep-deprived in some of the videos.
The online observers rated each of the study participants based on how lonely they seemed as well as whether the observers felt inclined to interact with them socially. The observers consistently rated sleep-deprived participants as lonelier and less socially attractive.
The observers were also asked to rate their own feelings of loneliness after watching the videos. Notably, the observers felt more socially isolated after watching even a single one-minute clip of a person who appeared to be lonely. The lonelier the person in the video seemed, the lonelier the observers were likely to feel.
Next, the researchers used standardized loneliness questionnaires to ask the observers about their feelings of loneliness from one day to the next. The responses suggested that a single night of good- or poor-quality sleep could accurately predict people’s social predilections from day to day. A single night of poor sleep was associated with higher feelings of loneliness and social withdrawal the next day, while a single night of high-quality sleep was associated with more sociability the next day.
Sleep Deprivation And The Loneliness Epidemic
This research may shed new light on the national loneliness epidemic.
Current surveys suggest that half of Americans struggle with loneliness. This has ramifications for public health, as social isolation is associated with higher rates of alcoholism, cardiovascular disease, physical illnesses, stress, compromised immune function, dementia, suicide, and increased mortality risk.
Social isolation is also linked with poor sleep. The new study suggests this may create an unfortunate feedback loop in which social isolation drives poor sleep quality, which then provokes more social isolation, and so on. In contrast, an active social life is associated with better sleep quality overall.
The researchers note that sleep duration is on the decline throughout so-called “developed” countries, while loneliness is on the rise. This study suggests it’s possible these social phenomena may be closely (perhaps even causally) linked.
[Editor’s Note: The content provided on this site is for general informational purposes only. Any information provided is not a substitute for professional medical advice. We encourage you to consult with the appropriate health expert if you have concerns.]
Featured image: fizkes/Shutterstock
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