Missing out on sleep makes you less empathetic: Here’s what happens to your brain


Empathy is a human quality that is absolutely crucial for us all to be able to develop prosocial behaviours and to create and sustain meaningful connections and intimate relationships. You could argue that empathy is the glue that holds society together and communities close.

Empathy can help construct our moral compass and is a barometer of our behaviour to others. Our ability to be empathetic has even been shown to be beneficial for our mental and emotional wellbeing, and contributes towards our ability to handle emotionally challenging situations. So it’s clearly vital that we do whatever we can to be at our most empathetic.

And it turns out that getting a good night’s sleep is key. A recent study published in the journal PLOS Biology has shown that lack of sleep makes us less likely or willing to help others and to demonstrate empathy, thus impacting our social interactions. Researchers from the Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, placed volunteers into an fMRI scanner – once after they’d had eight hours of sleep, and once after they had missed a night’s sleep. They found that key parts of the brain involved in empathy became less active after missing sleep. Namely, those in the so-called ‘social cognition network’ – an area of the brain comprising the prefrontal cortex, mid and superior temporal sulcus, and temporoparietal junction. This network has previously been shown to be activated when we are considering the mental states, needs and perspectives of others.

It isn’t just the quantity of sleep that seems to have an impact, but also the quality. Next, the team had 100 individuals log their sleep quality, including factors such as how many times they woke up during the night, and then tested their willingness to perform certain tasks such as holding open a lift door for a stranger.

They found that a drop in the quality of someone’s sleep led to a significant decrease in their desire to help other people on the following day – 78 per cent of the participants tested were less likely to offer a helping hand after missing out on sleep.

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The researchers also noted that there is a 10 per cent reduction in giving to charities after the clocks went forward in areas of the USA that follow daylight saving time, compared to areas where the clocks do not go forward. They suggest this could be due to the potential loss of an hour’s sleep when the clocks change. So getting good quality sleep is clearly essential for our ability to be empathetic towards others.

Similarly, a systematic review of 10 studies looked at the relationship between professional burnout in healthcare staff and their ability to be empathetic. Eight out of 10 of the studies showed that those experiencing burnout were less likely to be able to demonstrate empathy.

So if we are not looking after ourselves and our own mental health and emotional reserve, we are not able to look out for other people either. The phrase ‘put on your own oxygen mask first’ seems extremely pertinent to our ability to be empathetic and helpful to others, and also to society as a whole. Perhaps this is not a surprise, considering that society is made up of individuals all bringing their own perceptions, problems and skills to the table.

Just as we mirror other people’s feelings and expressions when we are showing empathy, so our communities are really a reflection of how well we are all looking after ourselves. Best get an early night then.

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