Missing out on Sleep Can Make Us Less Attractive to Others, Study Suggests

Researchers believe feeling tired can make us less attractive to others. Getty Images

Missing out on sleep can make us less socially attractive to others, according to a study.

In what researchers have called the "viral contagion of social isolation," even those who are well rested can develop feelings of loneliness just by speaking to someone who is sleep-deprived for 60 seconds, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found.

Not only that, sleep deprivation appears to tease out in otherwise healthy people symptoms akin to those suffered by individuals with social anxiety disorder, including being asocial and avoiding others.

Compared with when they are well rested, sleep-deprived individuals come across as lonelier, the team said.

The researchers said their study, published in the journal Nature Communications, is the first to suggest that sleep deprivation affects not only the individual but those he or she interacts with.

This in turn could make us more likely to be lonely. That's a concern, says Matthew Walker, professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and senior author of the study.

"Loneliness is a killer," he told Newsweek. "Being lonely increases your mortality risk by over 45 percent, double that associated with obesity. Moreover, loneliness significantly increases your risk for developing numerous forms of mental illness, including depression, schizophrenia, anxiety and suicidality."

Walker continued, "Lonely individuals are also more likely to develop dementia and do so prematurely. Therefore, any forces that increase and or perpetuate loneliness are of marked personal, clinical, public health and societal consequence."

What surprised the researchers most about their work was that one minute of speaking to a sleep-deprived person was enough to make someone feel lonely and "suffer the viral transmission of loneliness," Eti Ben-Simon, a postdoctoral fellow at Walker's Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley and co-author of the study, told Newsweek.

To test their hypothesis, the team hooked up 18 healthy adults to fMRI brain imaging equipment and watched how they reacted to video clips of individuals with neutral facial expressions approaching them.

The scans revealed that the parts of their brain networks usually triggered when humans feel their personal space is being invaded were lit up. This also dampened the part of the brain that encourages humans to be social.

In a separate part of the study, the researchers recruited over 1,000 participants from Amazon's Mechanical Turk marketplace to watch clips of the previous study participants expressing their opinions and discussing activities.

They didn't know whether or not the former participants were sleep-deprived and rated how lonely they seemed and whether they would like to interact with them. Unwittingly, they rated the sleep-deprived individuals as lonelier and less socially desirable. After each clip, the respondents rated their own loneliness. The results revealed they felt lonelier after the 60-second clip.

The researchers were also able to predict how lonely and social a person might feel by how much sleep he or she had had.

Next, the researchers want to understand whether their conclusions change as we grow older.

"Human beings were not designed to be alone," concluded Walker. "Sleep is a glue that, biologically and psychologically, binds us together as a species."

He added, "Ironically, sleep is often viewed as something that takes us away from social activity. We sometimes need to refuse a social gathering in order to get the sleep we need. The opposite now appears to be true. Sleep reconnects us with our social circle—with our friends, colleagues, partners and even with strangers."