May 26, 2020

COVID-19 researchers probe link between sleep and the greater good

What happens to empathy when we aren't sleeping properly? UCalgary scholars seek participants for study
Sleep and the greater good
Sleep and the greater good

Empathy is one of the most defining characteristics of humans. We wouldn't have gotten very far as a species without the ability to understand what others are experiencing and to react appropriately. We need empathy to work together, to resolve conflict, to form relationships, to survive. In times of crisis — whether personal or global — we need to be able to lean on each other for support even more.

But what happens to empathy when we aren't sleeping properly? Adding another layer, what happens to empathy when we aren't sleeping properly because of a global pandemic? Two researchers at the University of Calgary, Dr. Veronica Guadagni, PhD, and Dr. Giuseppe Iaria, PhD, are conducting a study to find out.

Listen: COVIDcast Episode 23: The importance of sleep

"We know from previous studies that the quality of sleep of people is affected by isolation," says Iaria, associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts, and adjunct associate professor in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM).

"We also know that sleep deprivation has a negative impact on empathy. What we don't know is the relationship between poor quality of sleep and people’s empathy during a pandemic."

Stress of pandemic disturbs sleep

This further step is important because the added stress factors related to the pandemic can cause disturbed sleep for a prolonged period, further eroding empathy. It's also an opportunity to study a population of individuals who are experiencing the same crisis at the same time. Sleep studies conducted in normal times are one thing, but the effects of an event of mass stress could alter results significantly.

"The people we've investigated in the past were living a normal life, more or less," says Iaria, who is  a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) and Alberta Children’s Research Institute at the CSM. "But what happens if you take an entire population and isolate it? What are the effects of that isolation on our society in terms of empathy?"

Obviously, reduced empathy doesn't just affect people on a personal scale, but also influences how they behave toward each other collectively. For example, people with greater empathy might be more inclined to follow public health guidelines out of concern for others.

"We wanted to see how quality of sleep during isolation changes, and how that change affects the ability to care for others," says Guadagni, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology in the CSM.

"If you really care for others, if you're worrying about number of deaths and people getting affected by this, most likely you'll get more anxious and stressed out and have worse quality of sleep. But on the other hand, most likely you'll follow those public health rules because you care more for the health of others and the health of vulnerable populations."

How poor quality sleep affects empathy

Of course, if that theory holds true, then the reverse is also possible: people with reduced empathy would be less likely to act for the greater good. "It's a little bit of an irony that instead of being extremely empathetic in a situation like this," says Iaria, "we may end up being a little bit less empathetic because of the poor quality of sleep we got."

If you'd like to participate in this study, visit our research website or email Dr. Veronica Guadagni  at

Veronica Guadagni is a member of the Marc Poulin Lab and is supported by the Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging within the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the CSM, and the Alzheimer Society Research Program. Research at the Poulin Lab focuses on the mechanisms that regulate cerebral blood flow in young healthy humans, how these mechanisms become altered with disease processes and aging, and the role of interventions such as exercise and altitude on the cerebral circulation. The research group holds memberships with the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, O’Brien Institute for Public Health, and Libin Cardiovascular Institute at the CSM and works with the Brenda Strafford Foundation Chair in Alzheimer Research.

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain InstituteBrain and Mental Health is one of six research strategies guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals. The strategy provides a unifying direction for brain and mental health research at the university.

Giuseppe Iaria

Giuseppe Iaria studies the individual and collective impact of poor sleep quality on people’s empathy during a pandemic.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

UCalgary resources on COVID-19

For the most up-to-date information about the University of Calgary's response to the spread of COVID-19, visit the UCalgary COVID-19 Response website.