According to neurobiological studies, the brain responds to sleep deprivation in ways that probably do infringe upon our social skills. In a 2007 review of neurological research on sleep deprivation, published in Cellular and Molecular Life Science, Dutch neuroscientist T.W. Boonstra and his colleagues report that sleep deprivation boosts levels of a substance in the brain called adenosine, which makes brain cells less likely to fire, promotes sleepiness, and suppresses arousal. (Coffee is a favorite antidote to adenosine.) The team also finds that sleep deprivation slows down the brain cells that use the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, making those cells less likely to fire as well. These chemical changes make our brains less responsive to the outside world, compromising our ability to pick up on information we get from other people.
Evidence also suggests that sleep deprivation hinders activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with emotions and complex thinking. The middle and lower sections of the prefrontal cortex help us make sense of the emotional and social signals that we exchange during social interactions. Complete damage to these sections of the prefrontal cortex produces abnormal behavior, such as markedly poor decision-making and inappropriate behavior towards others.
Studies show that as sleep deprivation reduces activity in these brain areas, social and emotional skills suffer. For instance, data from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research as well as studies of hospital workers have shown that when people are sleep deprived, their moral judgment and decision-making skills are impaired, they have a harder time dealing with team members, they’re more impulsive, and they react more negatively when things don’t go their way. More recently, a study published in an October issue of Current Biology shows that the emotional centers of the brain overreact to negative experiences when they’re sleep deprived, making it harder to have constructive interactions with others.
So on top of making us less sensitive to others, sleep deprivation impairs our brain’s ability to think about how we affect, and are affected by, other people. We need these neural tools to help us both read the emotional signals we pick up from others and decide on socially appropriate ways to respond.
Good sleep, it seems, is part of what makes us good people. Good night!