Sleep deprivation impairs recognition of specific emotions

William D.S. Killgore, Thomas J. Balkin, Angela M. Yarnell, Vincent F. Capaldi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


Emotional processing is particularly sensitive to sleep deprivation, but research on the topic has been limited and prior studies have generally evaluated only a circumscribed subset of emotion categories. Here, we evaluated the effects of one night of sleep deprivation and a night of subsequent recovery sleep on the ability to identify the six most widely agreed upon basic emotion categories (happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, disgust, anger). Healthy adults (29 males; 25 females) classified a series of 120 standard facial expressions that were computer morphed with their most highly confusable expression counterparts to create continua of expressions that differed in discriminability between emotion categories (e.g., combining 70% happiness+30% surprise; 90% surprise+10% fear). Accuracy at identifying the dominant emotion for each morph was assessed after a normal night of sleep, again following a night of total sleep deprivation, and finally after a night of recovery sleep. Sleep deprivation was associated with significantly reduced accuracy for identifying the expressions of happiness and sadness in the morphed faces. Gender differences in accuracy were not observed and none of the other emotions showed significant changes as a function of sleep loss. Accuracy returned to baseline after recovery sleep. Findings suggest that sleep deprivation adversely affects the recognition of subtle facial cues of happiness and sadness, the two emotions that are most relevant to highly evolved prosocial interpersonal interactions involving affiliation and empathy, while the recognition of other more primitive survival-oriented emotional face cues may be relatively robust against sleep loss.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10-16
Number of pages7
JournalNeurobiology of Sleep and Circadian Rhythms
StatePublished - Jun 2017


  • Emotion recognition
  • Facial expression
  • Perception
  • Sleep deprivation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pulmonary and Respiratory Medicine
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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