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Poor Sleep May Impair the Ability to Feel Empathy

What the Latest Research Findings Show

The next step was to determine whether more ordinary variations in sleep quality would have a similar impact. In Guadagni’s latest study, she and her colleagues asked 34 healthy, young college students to keep a sleep journal and wear an actigraph watch (a wearable device used to assess sleep) for a week. On Day 8, the researchers tested the participants’ emotional empathy using the same type of photos as before.

“We were interested in understanding if the relationship between sleep and empathy would hold even for daily-life changes in naturally occurring sleep quality,” says Guadagni. “We found that was indeed the case.”

Although this study was small and short-term, the results are consistent with those found in recent studies by other research teams. For example:

  • In a study of adolescents(link is external), poor sleep quality was associated with impairments in certain aspects of emotional competence and empathy.
  • In a study of health care workers(link is external)—including physicians, residents, nurses, lab technicians, pharmacists, and others—insomnia was related to decreased empathy, which could lead to worse outcomes for patients.

Looking for Connections Inside the Brain

What’s the link between a good night’s sleep and emotional empathy? Guadagni believes that poor sleep quality may disrupt communication between two key regions of the brain: areas of the limbic system involved in processing emotions and areas of the prefrontal cortex dedicated to monitoring and controlling emotional responses.

“We are currently in the process of analyzing brain imaging data from a sample of 16 healthy individuals who report variable quality of sleep,” Guadagni says. “This study will be important for understanding the neurological mechanism underlying the relationship between sleep and emotional empathy in humans.”

One thing is already clear: When you’re under-rested and over-tired due to poor sleep, your ability to manage your emotions is likely to suffer. One aspect that may be diminished is your ability to share in and care about the feelings of others.

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