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Sleep deprivation changes affects the accuracy of rating others emotions

Kelly Baron, PhD

I have a PhD in Clinical/Health Psychology. My current position is faculty at Northwestern University and associate director of the Comprehensive Insomnia Clinic at Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation

A recent article from this month's edition of the Journal Sleep found some interesting things about how sleep deprivation impacts our ability to recognize emotional cues

Most people report feeling more irritable, depressed and crabby after not sleeping, but it may also affect how we interpret the emotions in others.
In this study conducted at University of California at Berkeley, 37 volunteers were randomly assigned to either a normal night of sleep or total sleep deprivation. The next day, they were shown a series of faces with varying amounts of emotion- including happy, sad, and angry. They found that the sleep deprived participants rated the pictures of happy and angry faces as less angry and happy than those who slept that night.

The same was not true for the pictures of sad faces- sleep or not, they rated them similarly.
Interestingly, the effect was stronger in women than in men. Women gave even lower scores for happy and angry faces.
Why this matters:
When people are out in the real world, being able to interpret emotions in others is a very important skill.

People who have certain disorders, such as autism, have difficulty with emotional cues, which causes problems and frustrations for them.

On a scientific note- this study may also give us some clues about the brain regions that are affected by sleep deprivation. For example, the prefrontal lobe of the brain, the part of the brain involved in interpreting and managing our emotions, has been shown in neural imaging studies to be affected by sleep deprivation.  

By the way- this effect was reversible. In the second night of the study, everyone was allowed to go to sleep and the perceptions in the sleep deprived group went back to normal.


photo courtesy of flickr user Phillie Casablanca



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