Turns out that being sleep deprived, even a little bit, makes us less likely to be social, and also less socially acceptable to others.
Notably, 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.
OK so that’s bad enough, especially when we know that many mental health problems only get worse the more we isolate. But wait, there’s more:
“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.”
Yikes. As it turns out, there is something in our brains that tries to protect us when we come across sleep deprived people. Their inability to be as social because of their lack of sleep is actually contagious, and we naturally shy away from them in order to remain as socially active as we can.
So, it’s only one study, but we can take away some things from it.
This is bad news, because we know that people, in general, are reporting much less time spent sleeping, but it can also be good news. One, it’s relatively easy to fix, just get more sleep. (He says, like it’s so easy, granted.) But really, even just one full night’s sleep begins to make a difference.
Two, if we are aware of this natural instinct to shy away from people who look like they might be sleep deprived, or just unsociable people in general, we can act with more intention toward the people around us. As the article points out, this does make us question the assumption that we would instinctively protect the struggling members of our tribe. Clearly, we may actually be wired to not do that if they don’t seem interested in being part of the tribe. We need to be aware of that, and take steps to ensure we are recognizing that bias in ourselves, and acting in ways to correct for it.
Even if that means we temporarily lose some of our willingness to be social too.