Of the many mental health issues getting attention these days, two are surfacing ever more often: our chronic lack of sleep (and disruption of the sleep we are getting) and increasing feelings of loneliness (which are perpetuating despite a glut of social media apps claiming to connect us).
A new study examined the connection between the two and found that not only can sleeplessness make us feel lonelier, it may also send signals into the world that keep people away.
The study involved a laboratory experiment and online phases using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk site. For the lab experiment, a small group of participants underwent alternating nights of regular sleep and sleep deprivation, and then completed a social distance task that measured how much distance they wanted to keep from others (the study used a video to simulate people approaching). The researchers asked the participants to push a button to stop the video when they felt the person was getting too close. When sleep deprived, they kept a distance up to 60% farther away from their video counterpart than when they were well-rested.
At the same time, their brains were scanned using fMRI to measure neural activity associated with their social distance leanings. The scans revealed that the brains of sleep-deprived participants showed more activity in brain areas linked to “social repulsion,” which typically light up when someone feels like their personal space is being invaded. Their brains also showed less activity in areas linked to social engagement, which light up when we’re getting good feels from being around others.
For the online part of the study, researchers recruited about 1000 people to watch videos of others discussing and giving opinions on everyday topics. The watchers were then asked to rate how lonely each person in the videos appeared and if they’d like to interact with them. Those watching didn’t know which people in the videos were sleep-deprived or well-rested, but they consistently rated the sleep-deprived as lonelier and less socially attractive.
When asked to rate their own feelings of loneliness after watching the videos, the watchers reported feeling lonelier and more alienated after seeing just 60 seconds of sleep-deprived people in the videos. This result was particularly interesting because it says something about the social contagion effect of sleep deprivation – even via video, watching someone short on sleep made people feel lonelier themselves.
The final part of the study was a survey asking participants to answer questions like “How often do you feel isolated from others” and “Do you feel you don’t have anyone to talk to?” The results showed that just one night of poor sleep was strongly linked to how socially isolated and lonely people felt the following day, as evidenced by their answers.
Overall, the results of these experiments suggest a bleak conclusion: lack of sleep increases feelings of loneliness and decreases the likelihood that others will want to interact with you. In other words, it’s a catalyst for social isolation.
“It’s perhaps no coincidence that the past few decades have seen a marked increase in loneliness and an equally dramatic decrease in sleep duration,” said lead study author Eti Ben Simon, a postdoctoral fellow in Walker’s Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley. “Without sufficient sleep we become a social turn-off, and loneliness soon kicks in.”
There’s an irony in all of this worth noting. The same social media apps that we think are connecting us are part of the reason many of us are sleeping less. Staying up on our phones and tablets is reducing how much we sleep, plus the screen exposure may also be disrupting our sleep time (the now well-known “blue light” problem).
One takeaway from this study is to consider sleep when evaluating the factors preventing better social connections in our work and personal lives. In some cases, what seem like issues undermining relationships may really be extensions of a much more core issue – a lack of quality sleep.
The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.
The newly revised and updated 2018 edition of What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite is now available.
You can find the latest articles from David DiSalvo at Forbes.