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Poor Sleep May Impair the Ability to Feel Empathy

If you don’t snooze, you lose some of your capacity for emotional empathy.

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Emotional empathy is the ability to share the emotional experience of others. It’s often the driving force behind caring, compassionate behavior. And it’s something that may be in short supply after a bad night’s sleep, according to a new study(link is external)published online last month by the Journal of Psychophysiology.

Lead author Veronica Guadagni(link is external), M.Sc., a doctoral candidate at NeuroLab(link is external) in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary, sums up the main finding this way: “If individuals describe their quality of sleep as poor—if they feel tired and not well rested—their ability to be empathic in unpleasant situations is reduced, compared to others who feel satisfied with their sleep.”

That could have practical implications in a wide range of situations, whether you’re responding to your partner’s hurt feelings in an argument or dealing with a client’s frustrated feelings while fielding a complaint at work. It suggests that you may be less prepared to handle such situations when you haven’t slept well. Chalk up one more reason to make sleep a priority—not only for your physical health but also for your emotional and social well-being.

Sleep-Deprived and Empathy-Impaired

“The negative effects of sleep loss on cognitive function—and in particular, on mood and emotional processing—are well known,” says Guadagni. However, the specific effects on emotional empathy have been less well studied.

In previous research(link is external), Guadagni and her colleagues tested how going without sleep for a whole night would influence empathy. “We kept participants awake in an experimental setting and tested their emotional empathy before and after a night of sleep loss,” Guadagni says. To assess emotional empathy, the researchers asked participants to rate their responses to a standardized set of photos picturing people in emotional situations.

“We found that, after a night of total sleep deprivation, the emotional empathy responses of participants were overall blunted,” says Guadagni. This held true whether the emotional situations depicted in the photos were positive or negative. Regardless, “participants just cared less about other people’s emotions,” Guadagni says.

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