Sleep Deprivation Makes Us Appear Unattractive and Sad

New research says people are skilled at recognizing faces as tired. Compared to well-slept subjects, the sleep-deprived were perceived as having "darker circles under the eyes, paler skin, more wrinkles/fine lines, and more droopy corners of the mouth."
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(junctions/flickr)

"Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers." -Wallace Stevens

Have you ever wanted to tell someone they look sleep-deprived, but then just before you do, stopped yourself? Because, wait, are they really sleep-deprived? Or is that just how their eyes usually look? Also, remember, not everyone likes to be told they look tired. 

In 2010, researchers at the University of Stockholm found that people who appear tired are also more likely to be perceived as unhealthy and less attractive. (So, yes, "You look tired" is an unambiguous insult.) The Sweden-based research team published even more specific details in the academic journal Sleep this week to help us sort the inexorable facts on the link between how we sleep and how we appear.

Doctoral candidate Tina Sundelin and her team photographed research subjects on two separate occasions: Once after eight hearty hours of sleep, and then once after 31 hours awake. Forty people then rated the photographs on scales for fatigue, sadness, and ten metrics of physical appearance.

The eyes of sleep-deprived individuals bore the greatest burden. Subjects were perceived as having "more hanging eyelids, redder eyes, more swollen eyes and darker circles under the eyes." People also perceived sleep-deprived subjects as being sadder and having paler skin, more wrinkles or fine lines, and "more droopy corners of the mouth."

Discovery Health recently ran an article called "10 Signs You May Be Deprived of Sleep," which was about what they believe to be 10 signs you may be deprived of sleep. Spoiler: "Mood swings, medical problems, relationship troubles, diminished motor skills, poor decision making, vision problems, increased appetite, inability to concentrate, poor memory, inability to handle stress." So, only those things. That's not very helpful, because it's everything. But this new study from Sweden actually has practical implications.

"Since faces contain a lot of information on which humans base their interactions with each other, how fatigued a person appears may affect how others behave toward them," Sundelin said in a press release. Is this part of our innate sense of empathy? ("I should go easy on this tired person, or offer them a bed") Or is it part of an innate ability to identify and exploit weakness? ("This person looks tired. Now would be a good time to rob them.")

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Corn dog in repose (ricalamusa1/flickr)

I asked Sundelin if she wanted to comment on the study beyond the press statement, and she said she didn't have anything to say off-hand, but she offered that she "won't be offended if you say 'Doesn't everyone already know this?'" Which is something I never say. But as she told me, "A friend of a friend's once told me my studies were bullshit research, before she knew I was behind them. That still makes me laugh. I think it's good to scientifically examine what people consider common knowledge since every now and then that common knowledge is dead wrong. Wait, I guess that could be my comment."

So it is. Testing common knowledge is probably the most important thing science does — right up there with telling us to sleep. Even though the research is not always glamorous and sometimes involves photographing very tired people who, at the time, probably aren't thrilled about being photographed.

As for the part about wrinkles, which I understand to be of interest to many, Sundelin tells me it's still not well established that sleep deprivation actually causes wrinkles. There was one study, commissioned by Estée Lauder, that says it does; but it was not peer reviewed.

Apart from concerns of personal vanity, Sundelin says this new research "is relevant not only for private social interactions, but also official ones such as with health care professionals, and in public safety."

Once I was so tired after a 36-hour ICU shift early in my residency that I almost quit my job because it didn't seem reasonable or safe to work for that long. That's how tired I was. Patients also probably thought I looked unhealthy and unattractive and sad, which they might well have taken as an ill omen. At best it did little to inspire confidence in my abilities. But no one died prematurely, and eventually I got some much-needed sleep, and now I look sort of normal.

So, this is yet another reason to always get eight hours of sleep, especially if appearing beautiful and healthy and happy is tonally consistent with your personal brand. 

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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