New study shows poor sleep triggers viral loneliness

UC Berkeley study finds lack of sleep can turn people into social lepers

Research by the University of California Berkeley shows that being sleep deprived has a negative impact not only that individual but others who come in contact with that person.

Sleep deprived individuals feel lonelier and less inclined to engage with others, while well-rested people feel lonely after just a brief encounter with sleep-deprived people, potentially triggering a viral contagion of social isolation, according to the study published on Aug. 14 in the journal Nature Communications.

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

The researchers found that brain scans of sleep-deprived people as they viewed video clips of strangers walking toward them showed powerful social repulsion activity in neural networks that are typically activated when humans feel their personal space is being invaded. Sleep loss also blunted activity in brain regions that normally encourage social engagement.

“The less sleep you get, the less you want to socially interact,” said Walker. “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 said the study challenges the assumption that people are programmed to nurture socially vulnerable members of their tribe for survival of the species. Walker has a theory for why that protective instinct may be lacking in the case of sleep deprivation.

“There’s no biological or social safety net for sleep deprivation as there is for, say, starvation,” he said. “That’s why our physical and mental health implode so quickly even after the loss of just one or two hours of sleep.”

Researchers also found that the amount of sleep a person got from one night to the next accurately predicted how lonely and unsociable they would feel from one day to the next.

“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.