I’m a sleep lover. I like going to bed at the same time every night and getting a full night’s sleep. Deprive me of just one hour of blessed sleep, and things quickly go downhill. I become bad company—snarky and irritable, hardly able to keep up my end of a conversation, let alone negotiate difficult issues.
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Sleep is clearly important for our health, helping our bodies function at their best. It’s also key to our productivity, helping us stay fresh and focused the following day. But does getting a good night’s sleep affect our relationships, too?
In line with my own experiences, some relatively new research suggests that sleep does have positive social consequences. What we’re learning about the connection between sleep, our brains, and our social selves offers yet another reason to safeguard your zzz’s.
It’s been long known that loneliness is associated with poor sleep. But is the opposite true? Can poor sleep lead to loneliness?
In a recent study published in Nature Communications, researchers scanned people’s brains after they slept normally or had a night of sleep deprivation to see how they reacted to strangers. Participants were asked to watch videos of a stranger approaching them from a distance and to push a button when they felt the stranger was too close, while the researchers monitored what was happening in their brains.
When participants had suffered abnormal sleep, they wanted the person to stop at a much greater distance than they did after a night of normal sleep, and their brains reflected a particular pattern: Circuits associated with social repulsion lit up more strongly, while circuits involved in theory of mind (our ability to gauge the intentions of others) were diminished.
“A lack of sleep leads individuals to become more socially avoidant, keeping greater social distance from others,” the researchers conclude.
The poorly slept participants also reported feeling lonelier. And, when videotapes of them were analysed by independent raters, the raters thought they looked lonelier and were less interested in interacting with them, too.
Emotional empathy is our ability to feel what another person is feeling. So, if my friend is feeling sad, her sadness resonates with me to some extent, helping me to care about how she is doing.
But, when we sleep poorly, the parts of our brain devoted to emotional empathy don’t function as well, according to one recent study.
In the study, college-aged participants kept track of their sleep quality for two weeks and then performed a task while having their brains scanned. The task involved viewing photos of people with different expressions—some neutral, some distressed. Participants were asked to note how concerned they were about the people depicted, and the researchers measured differences in how they responded to distressed versus not distressed people to arrive at an empathy score. The researchers also recorded their brain activity patterns while viewing the different photos, to see how this might correspond to feelings of empathy.
Those who’d reported better sleep were significantly more empathic toward people in distress, and they showed increased activity in parts of the brain associated with emotional empathy when viewing distressed people.
Supporting prior research, this finding may help explain why we read people’s emotions more accurately and empathize better in romantic conflicts when we sleep well.
Of course, it’s not only true that sleep has an effect on our relationships; our relationships can affect our sleep, too. If we are fighting with our loved ones, facing discrimination, or feeling rejected, our sleep will likely be worse. That means that sleep problems can become cyclical, with social problems causing poor sleep and vice versa.
Luckily, we can break that cycle by getting enough sleep regularly. And, since there are all kinds of evidence-based tips out there for getting a good night’s sleep, it’s at least worth trying to do so. After all, we could all use people in our lives who are better rested and, as a result, more willing to connect in compassionate ways.