Sleep deprivation affects ability to recognise emotions

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A fascinating piece of basic neuroscience research with implications for clinical work has just been published in the The Journal of Neuroscience. The study investigated the ability of healthy individuals to recognise facial expressions under normal conditions and after they had been sleep deprived for 24 hours. They found that brain areas  responsive to emotional expression failed to respond in normal ways when sleep deprived. Specifically, they observed abnormal activity in the anterior cingulate, insula, and amygdala following sleep deprivation. Sleep deprived brains exhibitied bias by interpreting neutral and even friendly facial expressions as threatening. Senior author Professor Matthew Walker said:

"They failed our emotional Rorschach test ... Insufficient sleep removes the rose tint to our emotional world, causing an overestimation of threat. This may explain why people who report getting too little sleep are less social and more lonely."

Given the transdiagnostic ubiquity of sleep problems these results may have important consequences for psychological work with tired clients. These results indicate that sleep deprivation could be a causal factor in the cognitive biases we work with clinically. Discussing a related issue recently with colleagues who specialise in psychosis one remarked that her work is significantly more effective once sleep dysfunction has been addressed, and another desribed a movement towards short pieces of work focused upon addressing symptoms such as disrupted sleep. The clear implication is that some clients may find sleep hygeine work beneficial prior to addressing other psychological symptoms. The results of the study supported this conclusion, finding that the quality of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep across the sleep-rested night correlated with the participant's ability to accurately read facial expressions:

"The better the quality of dream sleep, the more accurate the brain and body was at differentiating between facial expressions," Walker said. "Dream sleep appears to reset the magnetic north of our emotional compass. This study provides yet more proof of our essential need for sleep."

 Read the press release at UC Berkley

 Read the article at the Journal of Neuroscience (sadly behind a paywall)


Goldstein-Piekarski, A. N., Greer, S. M., Saletin, J. M, Walker, M. P. (2015). Sleep Deprivation Impairs the Human Central and Peripheral Nervous System Discrimination of Social Threat, The Journal of Neuroscience, 35(28): 10135-10145