Sleep Loss Does Not Impact Ability to Assess Emotional Information

Summary: Sleep loss does not numb a person’s response to emotional situations, but it can result in difficulties in regulating emotional response.

Source: Washington State University

It’s no secret that going without sleep can affect people’s mood, but a new study shows it does not interfere with their ability to evaluate emotional situations.

It is often assumed that feeling more negative will color people’s experience of emotional images and events in the environment around them. However, Washington State University researchers found that while going 24 hours without sleep impacted study participants’ mood, it did not change their performance on tests evaluating their ability to process emotional words and images.

“People do become less happy through sleep deprivation, but it’s not affecting how they are processing emotional stimuli in their environment,” said Anthony Stenson, a WSU psychology doctoral student and lead author of the study in Plos One.

The findings have implications for healthcare providers, law enforcement and people in other long-hour professions who need to be able to control their own emotions during stressful and emotionally trying situations. Sleep loss in not likely to make them numb to emotional situations, the researchers found, but it is likely to make them less able to control their own emotional responses.

For the study, about 60 adult participants spent four consecutive days in the Sleep and Performance Research Center at the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. All participants were allowed to sleep normally the first night and then given a set of baseline tests to judge their mood as well as their emotional regulation and processing ability. Then, the researchers divided the participants into two groups: one group of 40 people spent the second night awake, while a control group of 20 were allowed a normal sleep period. The tests were then re-administered at different intervals.

The emotional regulation and processing tests both involved viewing a series of images with positive and negative emotional connotations. In the emotional regulation tests, participants were given a prompt to help them recontextualize negative images before seeing them and asked to control their feelings. The sleep-deprived group had greater difficulty reducing the emotion they felt when instructed to do so. 

The processing tests involved responding to words and images with emotional content, for example rating the emotions conveyed by a smiling family, a growling dog or a crying child  All participants performed similarly on these tests whether they were sleep deprived or not.

The distinction between processing the emotional content of the world around you and being able to regulate your own emotional responses is an important one, especially for some professions, said co-author Paul Whitney, a WSU professor of psychology.

“I don’t think we want our first responders being numb to the emotional nature of the situations they encounter, and it looks like they are not,” he said. “On the other hand, reacting normally to emotional situations, but not being able to control your own emotions, could be one reason sleep loss sometimes produces catastrophic errors in stressful situations.”

This shows a woman looking out over a railing
Sleep loss in not likely to make them numb to emotional situations, the researchers found, but it is likely to make them less able to control their own emotional responses. Image is in the public domain

A lot of previous research has looked at how sleep deprivation impacts so called “cold” cognitive tasks—supposedly emotionally neutral tasks like recalling facts. These studies have also found that regulation, which is considered a “top-down” cognitive process, is a major problem with cold cognitive tasks. For instance, mental flexibility is compromised by sleep deprivation. This is the ability an emergency room doctor might need to quickly change tactics if a patient isn’t responding to a treatment.

The current study shows that top-down regulation is a problem as well with “hot” or emotional cognitive processes. Future research is needed to understand whether the effects of sleep loss on the two top-down processes are linked.

This study is the result of an ongoing collaboration among WSU psychology researchers and sleep experts at WSU College of Medicine. Other authors include psychology post-doctoral fellow Courtney Kurinec as well as psychology Professor John Hinson and College of Medicine Professor Hans Van Dongen. All are also affiliated with the WSU Sleep and Performance Research Center.

About this sleep and emotional processing research news

Author: Sara Zaske
Source: Washington State University
Contact: Sara Zaske – Washington State University
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Total sleep deprivation reduces top-down regulation of emotion without altering bottom-up affective processing” by Anthony Stenson et al. PLOS One


Total sleep deprivation reduces top-down regulation of emotion without altering bottom-up affective processing

Sleep loss is reported to influence affective processing, causing changes in overall mood and altering emotion regulation. These aspects of affective processing are seldom investigated together, making it difficult to determine whether total sleep deprivation has a global effect on how affective stimuli and emotions are processed, or whether specific components of affective processing are affected selectively.

Sixty healthy adults were recruited for an in-laboratory study and, after a monitored night of sleep and laboratory acclimation, randomly assigned to either a total sleep deprivation condition (n = 40) or a rested control condition (n = 20). Measurements of mood, vigilant attention to affective stimuli, affective working memory, affective categorization, and emotion regulation were taken for both groups.

With one exception, measures of interest were administered twice: once at baseline and again 24 hours later, after the sleep deprived group had spent a night awake (working memory was assessed only after total sleep deprivation). Sleep deprived individuals experienced an overall reduction in positive affect with no significant change in negative affect.

Despite the substantial decline in positive affect, there was no evidence that processing affectively valenced information was biased under total sleep deprivation. Sleep deprived subjects did not rate affective stimuli differently from rested subjects, nor did they show sleep deprivation-specific effects of affect type on vigilant attention, working memory, and categorization tasks. However, sleep deprived subjects showed less effective regulation of negative emotion.

Overall, we found no evidence that total sleep deprivation biased the processing of affective stimuli in general. By contrast, total sleep deprivation appeared to reduce controlled processing required for emotion regulation.

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