Sleep research on campus focuses on social perception

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Research into sleep and its impact on the body abounds. One Brock student has committed to furthering the understanding of the behavioural and social effects of poor sleep.

Reuben Howlett is a master’s student within the psychology department whose thesis focuses on this lesser-known area of sleep research.

“We have two groups of people, good sleepers and poor sleepers, and we’re trying to see whether there are specific effects unique to poor sleep in terms of emotion processing,” said Howlett. “Basically the overarching theory or issue involved in this is social perception.”

According to Howlett, studying the role poor sleep plays on social perception and emotion processing could advance research into insomnia and mental health, as well.

“In a broader sense, poor sleepers may have difficulties perceiving faces, and that may mean they have a harder time to elicit social supports. The target insomnia group has a lot of problems with anxiety and depression, as well, so social support is really important to them. It could lead to informing potential treatment approaches for insomnia. This is more of a specific basic level, so it is a bit of a stretch to say it will inform it, but it’s part of a body of research that’s starting to explore this avenue,” said Howlett.

Student interest in understanding sleep is increasing, despite a student culture Howlett describes as focused on productivity and work over health and sleep hygiene.

“Often, students also report that they don’t sleep well and they’re kind of proud of it. They’re boasting, ‘I sleep five or six hours a night because I’m so busy.’ They want to show off how industrious they are,” said Howlett. “There’s another camp where students, behind all that bravado, are realizing that poor sleep is affecting their performance at school and at work and their energy for hobbies and relationships. Everything can suffer from poor sleep quality.”

While students agree to participate in the study for various reasons, Howlett claims that many are fuelled by a desire to understand their own health and wellness. However, students cannot obtain a diagnosis through the study.

“Students want to contribute and they want to know more about their own sleep. When students come in, they’re kind of chagrined, because we don’t provide individual feedback to students. We can’t do that as we’re not registered clinicians and we don’t have medical degrees,” said Howlett.

Poor sleepers participating in Howlett’s research are given an extensive guide to sleep and how to improve sleep hygiene. However, because it is a research study and not clinical, the information they receive is general.

“Unfortunately, Brock doesn’t really offer a clinical opportunity. I want to explore the topic of poor sleep and social functioning, but perhaps in a more clinically oriented arena. I’ll be looking for opportunities outside of the school to pursue those interests. This experience at Brock has given me the background knowledge and a good foundation of the more scientific techniques, like using [electroencephalogram (EEG)] technology,” said Howlett. “I’m glad I came here and was able to get a more scientific foundation. Clinical programs tend to be more applied. They’re equally important, as they inform each other.”

Howlett aims to work as a clinician in the future, utilizing his education at Brock and clinical experience to help individuals with non-medical sleep problems.

“There’s this epidemic right now where there’s a lack of trained professionals who can work with people who have poor sleep due to cognitive or mental concerns and issues,” said Howlett. “It’s really important that we have more people who are working on sleep issues together with other concerns, such as anxiety and depression.”

Howlett anticipates the study will continue seeking participants until February. The study requires both good sleepers, which are individuals who do not have any difficulties falling and staying asleep, and poor sleepers, who have these issues and typically receive less than six and a half hours of sleep a night. Each participant earns a $60 honorarium.

Howlett encourages interested individuals to check the Brock University Sleep Research Laboratory’s Facebook page or email sleeplab@brocku.ca for further information. He also plans to continue placing posters around campus and running information booths.

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