Lose Sleep, Get Lonely, Be Anti-Social

Sleep Insomnia Awake
Poor sleep can literally kill your social life.

Want to lose friends and alienate people?

Apparently, sleeping poorly is the first step on the road to loneliness, social anxiety and more stress.

In a study comparing well-rested folks against those who are sleep-deprived, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that without adequate sleep, areas of the brain that deal with perceived human threats seem to have heightened activity, while those that encourage healthy social interaction get shut off.

And apparently, the anti-social feelings are contagious! People shown videos of sleep-deprived individuals felt alienated themselves. So there would seem to be a 2 way highway when it comes to the relationship between sleep loss and social isolation.

So the deal is that sleep deprivation makes the sufferer feel lonely and less likely to be social and gregarious. However, when well-rested people encounter these poor zombies, they feel lonely, too. It’s like a viral epidemic of sucky social isolation!

The study’s senior author, Matthew Walker, said “We humans are a social species. Yet sleep deprivation can turn us into social lepers.” He added, “The less sleep you get, the less you want to socially interact. In turn, other people perceive you as more socially repulsive, further increasing the grave social-isolation impact of sleep loss. That vicious cycle may be a significant contributing factor to the public health crisis that is loneliness.”

Researchers noted remarkable sensations of social repulsion in the brains of sleep-deprived people upon showing them video of strangers walking toward them. This activation occurred in areas of the neural network that generally activate when you feel your personal space is being invaded. Concurrently, those areas of the brain associated with encouraging social engagement had their activity muted.

The study did a good job of creating a baseline by testing neural and social responses of 18 healthy young people following both a normal night’s sleep and a sleepless night. They viewed video of expressionless strangers walking toward them and were instructed to push a button when the stranger got too close. The distance at which the button was pushed was recorded.

The sleep-deprived kept the strangers at a further distance than the well-rested – between 18 and 60 percent further away. In conjunction, brain scans were done while the tests were run. The neural circuit known as the “near space network” show higher activity levels in the sleep-deprived tests.

The “theory of mind” network, which encourages human social interaction, was shut down by sleep deprivation. This made the problem worse.

The study recruited 1,000 observers with no personal knowledge of the subjects to view video of the subjects in both sleep-deprived and well-rested states. They listened as the subjects discussed commonplace topics and opinions.

They repeatedly assessed that the sleep-deprived subjects were lonelier and less socially desirable. Researchers also asked observers to rate their own levels of loneliness after watching the videos. Again, the consistent response was that the observers felt alienated after watching a 60 second clip of the sleep-deprived, lonely person.

They also wanted to know if just one night of poor or healthy sleep could impact a person’s sense of loneliness the next day. By using a standard survey with questions like “how often do you feel isolated from others” and “do you feel you don’t have anyone to talk to?,” they found something interesting. The amount of sleep one gets from one night to the next can accurately predict how lonely and unsociable they would feel from one day to the next.

Now, national surveys tell us that almost half of Americans report feeling lonely or left out. And we know that feelings of loneliness or isolation can increase the risk of mortality by more than 45%, which is double the added risk of obesity.

“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 study lead 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.”

This study challenges the evolutionary assumption that humans are programmed to nurture socially vulnerable members of their group or tribe in order to ensure survival as a species. Walker, who is also the author of the book Why We Sleep, says the following about why sleep deprivation may blunt that instinct, “There’s no biological or social safety net for sleep deprivation as there is for, say, starvation. That’s why our physical and mental health implode so quickly even after the loss of just one or two hours of sleep.”

According to Walker, the finding that better sleep improves feelings of social connection and reduces loneliness are important. “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.” Walker said.

So if you’re aiming for a life with no friends, complete isolation, misery and even early death, get some crappy, short sleep.

Want a happier life full of friends, social interaction and satisfaction? Get you zzzz’s, my friend.

Keep the faith and keep after it!


Study Reference

Eti Ben Simon, Matthew P. Walker. Sleep loss causes social withdrawal and loneliness. Nature Communications, 2018

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