Veronica Guadagni, Ford Burles, Michele Ferrara, Giuseppe Iaria
Previous studies have shown that sleep loss has a detrimental effect on the ability of the individuals to process emotional information. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that this negative effect extends to the ability of experiencing emotions while observing other individuals, i.e. emotional empathy. To test this hypothesis, we assessed emotional empathy in 37 healthy volunteers who were assigned randomly to one of three experimental groups: one group was tested before and after a night of total sleep deprivation (sleep deprivation group), a second group was tested before and after a usual night of sleep spent at home (sleep group) and the third group was tested twice during the same day (day group). Emotional empathy was assessed by using two parallel versions of a computerized test measuring direct (i.e. explicit evaluation of empathic concern) and indirect (i.e. the observer’s reported physiological arousal) emotional empathy. The results revealed that the post measurements of both direct and indirect emotional empathy of participants in the sleep deprivation group were significantly lower than those of the sleep and day groups; post measurement scores of participants in the day and sleep groups did not differ significantly for either direct or indirect emotional empathy. These data are consistent with previous studies showing the negative effect of sleep deprivation on the processing of emotional information, and extend these effects to emotional empathy. The findings reported in our study are relevant to healthy individuals with poor sleep habits, as well as clinical populations suffering from sleep disturbances.