I can’t sleep and I hate you

Let’s just get this out of the way now: this week’s Featured Article (which is Open Access, by the way) is in no way a dig at introverts (otherwise, I wouldn’t even have bothered with it, speaking as one who considers himself one). There many, many pieces of commentary on the difference between introversion and social isolation, which is often secondary to social anxiety, which is actually the focus of the study carried out here. In short: while introversion is a preference, social anxiety is more of a subconscious (or at least not necessarily conscious) mental state. In this case, it may be a mental state that may be caused by a lack of sleep.

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Public Domain (Author: Iris, 2008)

You are probably rolling your eyes back as to say “well, duh, Jonny.” Here’s the thing: you’ve had real-life experience, sure, but anecdotes are not scientific evidence (although they are often the start of studies – that’s where research questions can come from). There have also studies that have related a lack of sleep and social isolation as the authors mention in their literature review, but we all know that ‘correlation is not causation (or does not imply causation).’ This week’s Featured Article went for causation this time – the authors want to know if a lack of sleep indeed causes social isolation. We shall now find closure, even if our bloodshot eyes can’t.

The study was carried out on 18 adults that were placed in one of two conditions: the sleep-rested and sleep-deprived. The rested people had their sleep quality measured in the brain, eyes, and muscles, then went home for a more natural, good night’s sleep. The sleep-deprived were exactly that – they were made to stay up for 24 hours by going to the researchers’ lab. The personnel gave them all sorts of things to do, such as going online, watching movies, playing board games, reading, and so forth. You just read that and felt terribly exhausted, I’m sure, but think back once upon a time to when you had a sleepover as a kid. On the next day, they were tested on the following:

  • Social distance – an experimenter and a participant faced each other, then the experimenter walked toward the participant until the latter said ‘stop.’ This marked the distance they normally kept from strangers. The experimenter resumed walking again until the participant said ‘stop;’ this is now the distance where the participant feels uncomfortable (their ‘personal space’, as it were). This was repeated except this time, the participant was moving. Repeat all of the above, except experimenter was of the opposite gender.
  • Social distance (computerized) – same as the social distance tasks, except it’s done with a video of someone approaching the participant. This was carried out in an fMRI. As a comparison, the researchers used videos of ‘inanimate, non-threatening objects’ like a lamp, a basket, and a tray. To be honest, wouldn’t you get antsy if an ‘inanimate’ object was moving at you? I mean, chances are it’s being thrown at you, which means it’s threatening you in the sense that it’s going to make contact with your head and-
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Public Domain (Author: Clker-Free-Vector-Images, 2012)
  • Anyway, video-taped interviews – the participants gave their opinions on some questions where they were allowed to ‘speak their mind.’ They didn’t have anything to do with the research, it’s questions like ‘do you think everyone should go to university?’ or ‘who’s your favorite musician?’ There’s a complete list of these questions in the supplementary material of this OPEN ACCESS article. This was carried out so that 1,033 judges who knew nothing of the experiment could determine if a person was ‘lonely’ based on what they saw in the interviews.

So what did the authors find? For one, they found that there was ‘greater social separation from others following one night of sleep deprivation for both the in-person approach task and the computerized-task version…’, which they found by measuring the distance between the participants and the researchers. It’s exactly as you would suspect – sleep-deprived people just wanted to stay away from other people, which is one way social isolation plays out in real life. What makes this interesting is that they also did an online assessment that measured day-to-day changes in anxiety and mood, and the sleep-deprived didn’t show a major difference in these day-to-day changes, so these didn’t really affect the results as much as a lack of sleep.

Sleep-deprivation also affected what and how areas lit up in the fMRI. In the sleep-deprived brain, there was an increased activity in the the parts of the brain that ‘warns of an advancing human,’ while there was decreased activity in the parts that ‘understands the intentions and actions of another.’ To the neurologically inclined, you can dig into the article to find out what these parts specifically are, but putting these results together pretty much means this: when you’re sleep-deprived, you’re more concerned with SOMEONE’S COMING TOWARDS ME and not so much why they’re coming towards you. For all you know, they may be offering you a cookie, but you’ll never know because OMG SOMEONE’S COMING TOWARDS ME and now you got no cookie.

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Public Domain (Author: Bosmin Kang, 2010)

It’s the interviews that got my attention, though: while you would expect that the 1033 judges rated the sleep-deprived as lonelier than the rested, the interesting part was that the judges started feeling lonelier after watching the videos of the interviews with the sleep-deprived participants. You read that right: lonely, sleep-deprived people were bumming the judges out. Misery loves company, indeed.

So there you go: Yakko (of Animaniacs fame) wasn’t entirely correct when he quipped that “early to rise and early to bed makes a man healthy but socially dead.” Turns out you need to get some sleep if you’re going to be socially alive because a lack of sleep is not only related to social isolation, it causes social isolation. Yes, those of us who have been to college know about the trade we have to do to make it in college, but that’s where time management comes in. Personally, I never got the appeal of staying up late unless I was in a sleepover as a much younger Jonny or an epic gaming sesh (like I care about my age on that one). Or maybe if I had one of these or one of these and set off cruising late into the night with some appropriate cruising tunes. And of course I’m going to ride alone, but just because one is alone doesn’t mean one is lonely.

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Public Domain (Author: Free-Photos, 2014)

Then again, I’d be doing that not on a school night so I could afford to sleep in, and I’m probably still going to wake up early the next morning because my ‘late nights’ end at about 10:30 in the evening. Wow, I’m well-rested and kind of lame…

Thoughts? Comments? Are you not you when you’re sleepy and there aren’t enough Snickers bars to save your weary head? Let me know in the space below, throw a like if you liked it, and you don’t need to be a WordPress member to do it! If you’re not doing so already, please follow (if you’re into scientific research with snarky commentary from an overly-caffeinated blogger-scientist who somehow gets enough sleep) and thanks again for stopping by.

Featured Article: Ben Simon E, Walker MP. (2018). Sleep loss causes social withdrawal and loneliness. Nature Communications 9:3146. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-05377-0.

Featured Image: Public Domain (Author: 21150 (inactive account), 2014)

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