How Does Sleep Deprivation Affect The Brain? Science Says Lack Of Sleep May Cause Loneliness

If your social calendar is looking a little ~uneventful~ these days, before texting your BFF on Tuesday morning for an invite to happy hour on Friday night, be honest with yourself: Are you really going to show up? You’ve been putting in a lot of extra hours at work lately, and you aren’t expecting this week to be any easier. You come home late and go to bed even later, only to do it all over again the next day. Let’s face it: Sleep deprivation affects the brain in big ways, to the point where you’re not only mentally exhausted, but physically spent, too. So let’s fast-forward a few days from now: It’s 7 p.m. on Friday, and you’ve just clocked out of work. What sounds more appealing: a rowdy, crowded bar or your nice, warm bed? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

And, for the record, you’re not lame for saying no to plans every once in a while for the sake of catching up on some Zs; after all, your body needs its beauty rest to recharge. It’s when a lack of sleep translates to a lack of any kind of social interaction, in any context, that sleeping off not sleeping at all, becomes an issue — a legitimate issue, at that. A new study published in the scientific journal Nature Communications found that sleep deprivation affects your brain in that, the less shut-eye you score every night, the less interested you are in spending time with others.

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I know myself, and I don’t even have the energy to change out of my sweats (they’re just SO comfy) and go out on a Friday night when I do clock in six to eight hours of sleep the night before (I’m literally 26 going on 66, guys), let alone when I’m sleep-deprived. But the problem is, humans are naturally social beings, so not only is it important to get high-quality sleep every night, you need face-time with your family and friends, too, even if it’s just over a cup of coffee.

But when you aren’t getting enough sleep, you most likely aren’t going to follow through with social obligations, and why would you? Falling asleep after not having finished even one round of dollar margaritas doesn’t exactly sound like a good time — for you, or for whoever’s keeping you company at the bar. What’s interesting, though, is that you might not feel outwardly exhausted when you're not sleeping enough, but according to this new research, your brain on sleep deprivation is subject to shut down any social invitation — even the slightest interaction.

To pinpoint exactly how sleep deprivation affects your brain, researchers from UC Berkeley first recruited 18 healthy adults to participate in a two-night experiment to establish a baseline for how the volunteers function on a good night of sleep, and how they function on a night of poor sleep. So on the first night, participants slept through the night and were well-rested by morning, but on the second night, they were purposely deprived of shut-eye.

Next, the participants underwent a series of experiments, wherein they were asked to determine how much social interaction they were up for after being exposed to different kinds of social stimulation. For instance, in one phase of the experiment, sleep-deprived participants were told to sit still while a stranger literally walked toward them IRL, and to indicate when they wanted the person to stop approaching them. In the next phase, these participants completed the same task, except this time, they were simply watching a video simulation of someone "walking toward them," and again they were asked to indicate when they wanted the person to stop approaching them. During both of these experiments, the participants were hooked up to brain scanners so the researchers could get a sense of what exactly their natural responses were to these various forms of social stimulation. Spoiler alert: It didn’t exactly yield a positive response, but more on that in a bit.

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The final phases of the experiment took place online. According to a UC Berkeley press release on the study, the online part of the experiment recruited over 1,000 observers from Amazon's Mechanical Turk marketplace, and the researchers showed these volunteers various video clips of the sleep-deprived participants from the earlier phases of the study — except the observers didn't know the people in the video were sleep-deprived. The researchers not only asked the observers whether they'd want to socialize with the sleep-deprived participants they saw in the videos, but they also asked how they personally felt after watching the clips.

Collectively, the results showed that it doesn’t really matter whether you’re socializing with a friend or FaceTiming a family member; when you’re sleep-deprived, you’re sleep-deprived, and that means you’re more interested in your bed than you are in bonding with your squad. The problem is, the UC Berkeley press release explained, the less sleep you get, the less you feel like being around other people, and before you know it, you're feeling really lonely and you don't quite know why. What's worse, the research found, this can kind of create a domino effect where your loneliness affects other people’s feelings of loneliness. Basically, it’s all kind of a downer. Senior study author Matthew Walker, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience, said in a statement,

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. That vicious cycle may be a significant contributing factor to the public health crisis that is loneliness.
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Listen, I totally understand how unappealing the outside world can be when it’s already 9 p.m. on a Saturday night and you’re cuddled up in bed with a good book and warm cup of tea. Even if I’m not sleep-deprived, that’s pretty much my happy place. But you really do need to spend time with others, even if it’s just an or hour so because, sorry to break it to you, but humans do require at least a little social interaction to thrive.

So I’m going to offer you a little advice that’s going to give you a taste of the best of both worlds: When you’re feeling really tired and all you want to do is slink around at home all night, that’s fine! It’s the perfect opportunity to invite a close friend over for a movie marathon (or just one rom-com — everyone has their limits). Maybe invite a few friends and reenact those epic sleepover parties you had as a teenager and paint each other’s toe nails, each junk food, and sleep in before brunch the next day. I guarantee every part of you will feel refreshed. But if not, there’s always tomorrow night, right?