The surprising effect insufficient sleep has on perception

Just when you thought you knew all there was to know about the negative effects of sleep deprivation, a new doctoral thesis from the Karolinska Institutet posits a new incentive to get your circadian clock in order.

The implications of the data aren’t entirely novel, but they thicken research that has been somewhat limited in the past.

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The aim of the thesis was to better identify how insufficient sleep arrests various emotional mechanisms.  The hypothesis is composed of five studies investigating both young and old participants.

The psychological impact of lack of sleep

Sandra Tamm and her colleagues used MRI and PET techniques to examine three psychiatric factors in 117 participants: emotional contagion, empathy, and emotional regulation. Emotional contagion refers to the tendency to imitate other people’s emotions, empathy, of course, is the reaction to the pain of others and emotional regulation in this instance refers to our ability to control our response to emotional images.

The researchers found that a lack of sleep impaired most of these virtues considerably. It’s what they called a “negative bias.” In addition to making us more irritable, insufficient sleep impairs our perception of others. It makes us more likely to perceive things negatively.

“In conclusion, this thesis shows that restricted sleep is associated with a negativity bias and a decreased ability to regulate emotions, at least in young. Increased global signal variability in the brain’s gray matter could be one possible correlate to the behavioral effects of sleep restriction,” the paper reports.

It should be noted, however, that the experts observed no negative impact on empathy, even when all the other emotional capacities were hampered.

Independent studies have already evidenced damage to cognition and memory retention due to lack of sleep (this current study also documented the negative impact on concentration and fatigue in participants), but research is beginning to suggest that a lack of sleep might be an antecedent to various mental disorders as well.

Tamm explains, “Ultimately, the results can help us understand how chronic sleep problems, sleepiness, and tiredness contribute to psychiatric conditions, such as by increasing the risk of depression,”

Tamm and her team punctuated their new thesis by saying more research needs to be done to determine other mechanisms underlying emotional dysfunction related to poor sleep, namely by conducting studies on larger samples.

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