You might think leaving the pub early to get home to bed is what’s killing your social life, but scientists have actually found that sleep deprivation is more likely to make you feel lonely and socially isolated.
The new study from the University of California and Berkeley found sleep-deprived people avoiding close contact with others in much the same way as those with social anxiety do.
When you are exhausted not only do you want to avoid people, but well-rested people are also more likely to feel lonely themselves after even the briefest of encounters with you – making you subconsciously socially unattractive.
Researchers found brain scans of sleep-deprived people showed powerful social repulsion activity in neural networks which 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 findings, published today in the journal Nature, are the first to show a two-way relationship between not having enough sleep and becoming socially isolated.
Given both sleep and loneliness and considered to be an increasing concern in the modern population, these findings shed light on the interplay between them.
Matthew Walker, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Berkeley said: “We humans are a social species. Yet sleep deprivation can turn us into social lepers.”
“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,” Walker added. “That vicious cycle may be a significant contributing factor to the public health crisis that is loneliness.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that 5% of adults in England reported feeling lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’ between 2016 and 2017.
Surprisingly, younger adults (those aged 16 to 24) were found to experience loneliness more often than those in older age groups; while women, widows, single people, renters and those with poor health were also identified as more susceptible.
But perhaps it is no coincidence that the past few decades have seen a marked increase in loneliness and an equally dramatic decrease in sleep duration.
From an evolutionary standpoint, the study challenges the assumption that humans are programmed to nurture socially vulnerable members of their tribe for the survival of the species.
Walker said: “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 implodes so quickly even after the loss of just one or two hours of sleep.”
To gauge the social effects of poor sleep, the team used tools like MRI brain imaging, videotaped simulations and surveys. They tested the neural responses of 18 healthy young adults following a normal night and a sleepless night.
Finally, researchers looked at whether just one night of good or bad sleep could influence one’s sense of loneliness the next day.