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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 published online last month by the Journal of Psychophysiology.

Lead author Veronica Guadagni, M.Sc., a doctoral candidate at NeuroLab 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, 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.

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, poor sleep quality was associated with impairments in certain aspects of emotional competence and empathy.
  • In a study of health care workers—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.

Linda Wasmer Andrews has specialized in reporting on health, psychology, and the intersection of the two for more than three decades. 

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