Poor sleep can trigger “viral” loneliness and turn you into a social leper

Being sleep-deprived can make you lonely and antisocial – and by extension, ruin your social life. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that people suffering from sleep deprivation are not only lonely but avoid contact with other people. That, in turn, makes them socially repellent others. People who are well-rested feel lonely after brief contact with someone who is sleep-deprived, creating a “viral” effect.

The study is the first to show that the relationship between sleep loss and social isolation goes two ways and that poor sleep may play a part in the worldwide loneliness epidemic.

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“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,” says study lead author Eti Ben Simon, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Human Science at Berkeley, in a release. “Without sufficient sleep, we become a social turn-off, and loneliness soon kicks in.”

For the study, the researchers conducted experiments using fMRI brain imaging, standardized loneliness tests, videotaped simulations, and online surveys.

For the online section of the study, more than 1,000 observers recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace watched videotapes of study participants talking about everyday opinions and things they’d done. The online observers weren’t aware that the subjects they were watching had been deprived of sleep. When asked to rate them based on how lonely they seemed and whether they’d want to interact with them socially, they consistently rated the sleep-deprived participants as lonelier, and they didn’t want to interact with them.

Researchers also asked observers to rate their own levels of loneliness after watching videos of sleep-deprived study participants. They often felt “alienated” after just 60 seconds of watching a lonely, sleep-deprived participant.

“We humans are a social species. Yet sleep deprivation can turn us into social lepers,” said senior author Matthew Walker, a Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience. “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.”

On a positive note, Walker said, you only need one night of good sleep to make you whole again – “more outgoing and socially confident.”

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

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