Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Sleep Disorders Health Center

Font Size

Lack of Sleep Impairs Emotional IQ

Study: Sleep Deprivation Prevents the Brain From Accurately Reading Faces
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 15, 2011 -- Sleep-deprived people have trouble reading facial expressions, a new study shows, particularly when those faces are shifting away from anger or threat.

The finding suggests that sleepy people may have impaired judgment, especially in situations where they are dealing with an angry or threatening person who is backing down.

The study was presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society in Minneapolis.

Tracking the Effects of Sleep on Emotional IQ

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley scanned the brains of 12 healthy young adults as they watched a computer-generated face.

Investigators used computer software to tweak the face’s features slightly, with the lift of an eyebrow here or the flare of a nostril there, to display a gradient of emotion as it moved from either very threatening to neutral or friendly to neutral.

Study volunteers were asked to rate each of the 70 images in a series as being either threatening or nonthreatening, or friendly or not friendly.

When the participants were well rested, they had no trouble picking up on the emotional changes, but when they were deprived of sleep after 24 hours, that ability was impaired.

“As the pictures start to get less and less threatening, the people who are sleep deprived continue to rate them as threatening,” says study researcher Matthew P. Walker, PhD, director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory and associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.

The ability to sense emotional shifts in friendly faces didn’t appear to be affected.

Social and Professional Consequences

“Facial expressions are probably the most salient cues that we have in our environment,” Walker says. “They profoundly influence how we behave, and they can rapidly alter your feelings and your actions toward other people.”

He says not sleeping enough could have profound social and professional consequences, particularly for people like doctors, police officers, or soldiers, who are frequently called on to quickly assess and respond to interpersonal situations.

“When you’re sleep deprived, you can’t separate threatening from non-threatening cues,” he says. “You keep thinking that they’re threatening. So you can’t accurately identify the emotion.”

Other experts who were not involved in the study agree.

“We’re social animals. If we have problems with recognition of emotional cues, we get in trouble with other people,” says Marlene Oscar Berman, PhD, professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Berman studies emotional recognition in the brains of former alcoholics. 

She’s found that past alcohol abuse, like sleep deprivation, appears to impair the ability to recognize emotions in the faces of other people.

Berman thinks damage to an area of the brain called the amygdala, a region important for memory, attention, and decision making, may be causing the problem.

People who can’t accurately recognize emotion, she says, often struggle in life.

“Emotional recognition is tied to the recognition of positive and negative feedback in general, and that gets into the whole area of decision making,” she says. “If you can’t make good decisions, you can get into big trouble.”

This study was presented at a medical conference. The findings should be considered preliminary because they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

Today on WebMD

fatigued senior woman
We’ve got 10 tips to show you how
Man snoring in bed
Know your myths from your facts.
 
Young woman sleeping
What do your dreams say about you?
woman eith hangover
It’s common, and really understood.
 

Is This Normal? Get the Facts Fast!

How Many Hours Did You Sleep Last Night?
Is that amount of sleep typical for you?
Did you get enough sleep to feel alert today and function at your best?

Get the latest Sleep Disorders newsletter delivered to your inbox!


or
Answer:
0-6
7-8
9+

Your level is currently

You say you are able to function well with fewer than seven hours of sleep. Some people say they can function on four to six hours of sleep each night, but research shows that adults who get fewer than seven hours of sleep — whether for just one night or over the course of days, weeks, or months — have more difficulty concentrating and more mood problems than people who sleep seven to nine hours.

Since you usually get too little sleep, please talk to your doctor about your sleep patterns. Poor quality sleep can affect many areas of your life and health, and your doctor may be able to help you if you have insomnia or other conditions affecting your sleep.

Sleep deprivation can have both short- and long-term consequences. Learn more about the health consequences of sleep loss. If you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

It's not surprising you feel that you're not functioning at your best today. Some people say they can function on four to six hours of sleep each night, but research shows that adults who get fewer than seven hours of sleep — whether for just one night or over the course of days, weeks, or months — have more difficulty concentrating and more mood problems than people who sleep seven to nine hours.

Since you usually get too little sleep, please talk to your doctor about your sleep patterns. Poor quality sleep can affect many areas of your life and health, and your doctor may be able to help you if you have difficulty sleeping, have insomnia, or have other sleep disorders.

Learn more about the health consequences of sleep loss. If you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

It's not surprising you feel that you're not functioning at your best today. Some people say they can function on four to six hours of sleep each night, but research shows that adults who get fewer than seven hours of sleep — whether for just one night or over the course of days, weeks, or months — have more difficulty concentrating and more mood problems than people who sleep seven to nine hours.

It's good that you usually do get more sleep, since sleep deprivation can have both short- and long-term consequences. Learn more about the health consequences of sleep loss. And if you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

You say you are able to function well with fewer than seven hours of sleep. Some people say they can function on four to six hours of sleep each night, but research shows that adults who get fewer than seven hours of sleep — whether for just one night or over the course of days, weeks, or months — have more difficulty concentrating and more mood problems than people who sleep seven to nine hours.

It's good that you usually do get more sleep because sleep deprivation can have both short- and long-term consequences. Learn more about the health consequences of sleep loss. And if you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

It's not surprising you feel that you're not functioning at your best today. Some people say they can function on four to six hours of sleep each night, but research shows that adults who get fewer than seven hours of sleep — whether for just one night or over the course of days, weeks, or months — have more difficulty concentrating and more mood problems than people who sleep seven to nine hours.

Since you usually get less sleep, please talk to your doctor about your sleep patterns. Poor quality sleep can affect many areas of your life and health, and your doctor may be able to help you if you have difficulty sleeping or have insomnia or other sleep disorders.

Learn more about the health consequences of sleep loss. If you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

It's wonderful that you got a good night's sleep last night. Many people struggle to do so. Having a good sleep routine often is the key to getting the quality sleep night after night that your body needs for optimal health. Whether your sleep routine involves taking a warm bath, reading a book, or meditating, it's important to keep your bedtime and routine consistent every night and wake up around the same time every morning.

Click here to read more about the importance of sleep. If you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping too much, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

It's unfortunate you're not functioning at your best today. You say you had a good quantity of sleep last night, but maybe the quality of your sleep is not as good as it could be? Having a good sleep routine — including a consistent bedtime and wake time — often is the key to getting the quality sleep night after night that your body needs for optimal health. Since you usually sleep this amount, if you often aren't feeling your best, you should consider talking to your doctor. Could you have an underlying condition? Are you feeling anxious or depressed? Have you taken medication that disrupted your sleep? Do you or could you have sleep apnea? Or do you naturally require a little bit more sleep?

Although sleep is crucial for optimal health, some research suggests that sleeping too much can also have negative consequences. Learn more about sleep. If you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping too much, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

It's unfortunate you're not functioning at your best today. You say you had a good quantity of sleep last night, but maybe the quality of your sleep is not as good as it could be? Having a good sleep routine — including a consistent bedtime and wake time — often is the key to getting the quality sleep night after night that your body needs for optimal health. Since you usually sleep longer, if you often aren't feeling your best, you should consider talking to your doctor. Could you have an underlying condition? Are you feeling anxious or depressed? Have you taken medication that disrupted your sleep? Do you or could you have sleep apnea? Or do you naturally require a little bit more sleep?

Although sleep is crucial for optimal health, some research suggests that sleeping too much can also have negative consequences. Learn more about sleep. If you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping too much, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

It's wonderful that you got a good night's sleep last night. Many people struggle to do so. Having a good sleep routine often is the key to getting the quality sleep night after night that your body needs for optimal health. Whether your sleep routine involves taking a warm bath, reading a book, or meditating, it's also important to keep bedtime consistent and wake up around the same time every morning.

Although sleep is crucial for optimal health, some research suggests that sleeping too much can have negative consequences. Learn more about sleep. If you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping too much, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

It's unfortunate you're not functioning at your best today. You say you had a good quantity of sleep last night, but maybe the quality of your sleep is not as good as it could be? Having a good sleep routine — including a consistent bedtime and waking up at the same time — often is the key to getting the quality sleep night after night that your body needs for optimal health.

Since you usually get less sleep, please talk to your doctor about your sleep patterns. Poor quality sleep can affect many areas of your life and health, and your doctor may be able to help you if you have insomnia, another sleep disorder, or conditions affecting your sleep.

Learn more about the health consequences of sleep loss. If you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

It's wonderful that you got a good night's sleep last night. Many people struggle to do so. Having a good sleep routine often is the key to getting the quality sleep night after night that your body needs for optimal health.

Since you usually get less sleep, talk to your doctor about your sleep patterns. Poor quality sleep can affect many areas of your life and health, and your doctor may be able to help you if you have insomnia or another sleep disorder or conditions affecting your sleep.

Learn more about the health consequences of sleep loss. If you're concerned about having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, assess your risk for a sleep disorder.

SOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Effect of short sleep duration on daily activities--United States, 2005-2008. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2011; 60:239.

Carskadon, MA, Dement, WC. Normal Human Sleep: An Overview. In: Principles and Practices of Sleep Medicine, Fifth, Kryger, MH, Roth, et al. (Eds), Elsevier Saunders, St. Louis, MO 2011. p.16.

Harvard University: "Sleep, Performance, and Public Safety."

Did You Know Lifestyle Choices
Impact Your Sleep?

Use the WebMD Sleep Tracker to track
your ZZZs over time.

Get Started

This tool is intended only for adults 18 and older.

Start Over

Step:  of 

Young woman sleeping
Quiz
Cannot sleep
Video
 
child sitting in bed
Article
Woman with insomnia
Quiz
 
nurse sleeping
ARTICLE
Foods That Help Or Harm Your Sleep
SLIDESHOW
 
Insomnia 20 Tips For Better Sleep
Slideshow
Pain at Night
ARTICLE