Short nights make you antisocial and ‘unattractive,’ study finds

Short nights make you antisocial and ‘unattractive,’ study finds

If you want more friends, get more sleep: Short nights make you antisocial and ‘unattractive,’ study finds

  • The world is in the midst of epidemics of both sleeplessness and loneliness
  • Loneliness raises the risks of death by any cause by 45 percent 
  • And not getting enough sleep is thought to contribute to many diseases 
  • New University of California, Berkeley, research shows how sleeplessness leads to ‘viral’ loneliness 

Lack of sleep can literally kill your social life, warns a new study.

Researchers have found that sleep-deprived people feel lonelier and less inclined to engage with others, avoiding close contact in much the same way as people with social anxiety. 

Worse still, the alienation they feel makes sleep-deprived people more socially unattractive to others, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found. 

The study also suggests that well-rested people feel lonely after just a brief encounter with a sleep-deprived person, potentially triggering a viral contagion of social isolation.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, are the first to show a two-way relationship between sleep loss and becoming socially isolated, shedding new light on the global loneliness epidemic. 

Sleep-deprived people feel less social and more lonely, and appear less socially attractive to others, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley 

‘We humans are a social species. Yet sleep deprivation can turn us into social lepers,’ said senior study author Dr Matthew Walker.

Dr Walker is a member of the contingent of scientists waging war on another worldwide ‘epidemic’: lack of sleep. 

In the US, one in three people don’t get the seven hours of sleep that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend each night. 

Sleep deprivation raises the risks of all manner of diseases and chronic health conditions, but it also has dramatic effects on our day-to-day mental health and, according to the latest research, the health of our social lives.  

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.

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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 Dr Walker. 

‘In turn, other people perceive you as more socially repulsive, further increasing the grave social-isolation impact of sleep loss.


1. Give yourself a non-negotiable eight hour sleep opportunity

Without giving your brain and your body the chance to actually get all of the sleep that it needs, probably none of these other tips are going to transact as efficacious a benefit as they could do.

2. Regularity

You should go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time. Try to never deviate. If you do, you’re not going to feel sleepy at the appropriate time because you haven’t built up enough of that healthy sleep pressure. Then, you go to bed even later, and start to drift dangerously forward in time. We see this on the weekend, then it all comes crashing down on Sunday night, of course. We call this ‘social jet lag.’

3. Temperature

Keep it cool. Keep the bedroom at about 18.5C (65.3F). Your brain and body need to drop their core temperature by about one degree Celsius to initiate good sleep, and that’s the reason that it’s always easier to fall asleep in a room that’s too cold than too hot. The cold room is at least taking your brain and your body in the right temperature direction for sleep.

4. Light (Or, darkness, in truth)

We are a dark-deprived society in modern times. We need darkness in the evening specifically, to allow for the rise of a hormone called melatonin, which helps time the natural and normal, healthy onset of our sleep. If we’re exposed to too much light in our environment – especially the harmful light that comes from LED screens, such as iPads and tablets and computer screens, they will essentially put the brakes on your brain, fooling it into thinking that it’s day time, even when it’s nine or 10 in the evening. So, no wonder you don’t feel sleepy at the right time.

5. Don’t stay in bed, awake, too long

 If you can’t fall asleep for 20 minutes, or you’ve waken in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, go to a different room. There, you can have a dim light and a book to read; no emails, no screens, and try not to eat. If you stay awake in bed, your brain quickly learns the association of your bed being a place of wakefulness, rather than a place of sleep. Only return when you are actually sleepy and, that way, your brain can re-learn an association about your bed and your bedroom as a place of sleep.

6. No tea, coffee  after 2 pm, and no ‘night caps’

Caffeine in the brain will keep you from going into deepest stages of sleep, even if you are able to fall asleep. Many people use alcohol to help them get to sleep, and it is a myth. Alcohol is a sedative, but sedation is not sleep. Alcohol knocks out your cortex, but you will wake up throughout the night and feel unrestored by your sleep. Alcohol will also block your dream sleep, which is critical for for many parts of health, especially mental and emotional health.

‘That vicious cycle may be a significant contributing factor to the public health crisis that is loneliness.’

Loneliness has been found in previous studies to increase the risk of dying by more than 45 percent – double the mortality risk associated with obesity.

Study lead author Dr Eti Ben Simon, a postdoctoral fellow in Dr Walker’s Center for Human Sleep Science, said: ‘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.

‘Without sufficient sleep we become a social turn-off, and loneliness soon kicks in.’

The study challenges the assumption that humans are programmed to nurture socially vulnerable members of their tribe for the survival of the species.

Dr Walker, author of the bestseller Why We Sleep, has a theory for why that protective instinct may be lacking in the case of sleep deprivation.

He 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 implode so quickly even after the loss of just one or two hours of sleep.’

To gauge the social effects of poor sleep, Dr Walker and Dr Ben Simon conducted a series of experiments.

First, they tested the social and neural responses of 18 healthy young adults following a normal night’s sleep and a sleepless night.

The participants viewed video clips of people with neutral expressions walking toward them. When the person on the video got too close, they pushed a button to stop the video, which recorded how close they allowed the person to get.

As predicted, sleep-deprived participants kept the approaching person at a significantly greater distance away – between 18 and 60 percent further back – than when they had been well-rested.

The participants also had their brains scanned as they watched the videos of people approaching them. In sleep-deprived brains, researchers found heightened activity in a neural circuit known as the ‘near space network,’ which is activated when the brain perceives potential incoming human threats.

In contrast, another circuit of the brain that encourages social interaction – called the ‘theory of mind’ network – was shut down by sleep deprivation, worsening the problem.

This is the set of brain regions that talk to one another and enable us to hold our own beliefs, desired and general emotional states, observe and understand these states in others, and know the difference between theirs and ours. 

For the online section of the study, more than 1,000 observers recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk marketplace viewed videotapes of study participants discussing commonplace opinions and activities.

The observers were unaware that the subjects had been deprived of sleep and rated each of them based on how lonely they appeared, and whether they would want to interact socially with them.

Time and again, they rated study participants in the sleep-deprived state as lonelier and less socially desirable.

To test whether sleep-loss-induced alienation is contagious, researchers asked observers to rate their own levels of loneliness after watching videos of study participants.

They were surprised to find that otherwise healthy observers felt alienated after viewing just a 60-second clip of a lonely person.

Finally, the team looked at whether just one night of good or bad sleep could influence one’s sense of loneliness the next day.

Each person’s state of loneliness was tracked via a standardized survey that asked such questions as ‘how often do you feel isolated from others?’ and ‘do you feel you don’t have anyone to talk to?’

The researchers 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. 

‘On a positive note, just one night of good sleep makes you feel more outgoing and socially confident, and furthermore, will attract others to you.’.


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