The Plight of the Night Owl
I must start with my bias. I am a night owl. So too were Winston Churchill and Charles Darwin, James Joyce and Glenn Gould.
In one interview, Ann Beattie said, “I really think people’s bodies are on different clocks. I even feel now like I just woke up and I’ve been awake for three or four hours. And I’ll feel this way until seven o’clock tonight when I’ll start to wake up and then by nine it will be okay to start writing. My favorite hours are from 12:00 to 3:00 a.m. for writing.”
By contrast, scientists have taken a close look at the members of one Utah family who went to sleep at 7 pm and awakened at 2 am. It turns out that their body clocks were set slightly differently from the rest of us. Seeing several members of that family demonstrate a similar schedule, scientists concluded that there was a genetic connection.
Describing our “sleep architecture,” researchers refer to early, late or intermediate chronotypes. Early chronotypes (morning larks) awaken early and find it difficult to stay up late. By contrast, late chronotypes (night owls) have difficulty awakening, enter their highest productivity hours after the work day has ended and might even experience sleep deprivation and perpetual jet lag because their body clocks are out of sync with conventional work schedules. Some research says they are more susceptible to stress.
Below, you can see the sleep tendencies of “larks” and “owls.” The morning larks are labeled ASP for Advanced Sleep Phase, the night owls are the people with DSP or Delayed Sleep and those called NSS are the Natural Short Sleepers who require only 6 hours.
Our individual circadian rhythms relate to our lifestyle and cognitive performance. They can determine when we do our best work and when we should exercise. Citing adolescent circadian rhythms, studies suggest that the school day starts too early. Similarly, weekday work shifts ignore the potential of society’s “owls” as do social norms that tell us, “The early bird catches the worm. Early to bed early to rise….” You know.
And therein lies the problem. If your genetic sleep clock does not fit with society’s schedule, you are not performing at your best. Called social jet lag, sleep deprivation diminishes the potential of our human capital.
Sources and Resources: Sleep research is fascinating. After hearing Washington U. biologist Erik Herzog talk about the genetics of circadian rhythms during a PRX interview, I read this Slate article (source of Ann Beattie quote), this news report and then looked at Erik Herzog’s website and this (source of above graph) and this academic paper. I recommend all.
And I guess I should add that Napoleon, Thomas Edison and Ernest Hemingway were said to be “larks.”