By Cody Fenwick
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
If you’re like me, you might find yourself sleeping in late on the weekends and feeling most productive at night. When I have a paper or major project due, I do my best work in the darkest hours the night before the deadline.
Other people wake up early and feel most productive during the morning hours. Conventional wisdom–that some individuals are morning people (or larks) while others are night people (or owls)–is verified by scientific opinion in the field of sleep research, as Dr. Jerome Siegel, Director of UCLA’s Center for Sleep Research confirms with BTR.
In fact, there is a stronger biological basis for these differences than many may suspect.
“There are some genetic linkages to being an evening person and being a morning person,” Dr. Siegel explains. “It’s a real difference. It’s what you’ve got, and it seems to be generally a lifelong trait.”
These behavioral differences are driven by differences in circadian rhythms, the natural cycles our bodies go through that regulate our sleeping and waking lives. Though circadian rhythms are generally consistent for those without sleep disorders, the variations between individuals account for the existence of larks, owls, and those who fall in between. These patterns also tend to shift over a lifetime.
Photo courtesy of Johan Viirok.
Some studies suggested that there may even be additional types of sleep schedules (or chronotypes), though more research is required before these findings are considered robust. Other research showed evidence of physical differences in the brains of individuals with different chronotypes, though it is unclear if the differences were the cause or effect of individuated sleep cycles.
People can alter their personal sleep schedules. Dr. Maurice Ohayon, Director of the Stanford Sleep Epidemiological Research Center, tells BTR that the best method is changing sleeping and waking time by 10 or 15 minutes per night, until the desired schedule is achieved. The shift can benefit those who have school or work schedules that do not align with their natural rhythms.
Exposure to artificial light, particularly from computers and cell phone screens, affects human sleep cycles and may have to be adjusted when individuals seek to change their habits.
According to Dr. Siegel, individuals may find that it takes up to two weeks to adapt to a different sleep schedule.
However, though some can readily adapt to a different schedule, others struggle against their genetic predispositions. When work schedules rotate, requiring staff to be awake at different parts of the day throughout their workweek, employees often find themselves unable to remain as well rested and productive as they could be on a more consistent schedule.
“Most people, even if they’re on a fixed schedule, working nights, will want to switch on their days off,” Dr. Siegel adds. “This is going to create health problems in the long run, and there isn’t really any simple fix for this.”
Similar effects occur for individuals who force themselves to wake up early during the workweek while waking up late and staying out late on the weekend.
Both Dr. Siegel and Dr. Ohayon agreed that though individuals can adapt to different schedules, they cannot fundamentally change their underlying chronotype. It will always be easier for some to be alert in the mornings than it will be for others.
Photo courtesy of MC Quinn.
Thus, it’s unsurprising that many studies show that lark-type students have an academic advantage over owl-type students, given that schools begin in the early morning. Nevertheless, evidence shows that owls have greater average cognitive abilities than larks. Traditional school schedules, it would seem, are biased against owls, putting these students at a disadvantage.
Dr. Ohayon explains that some schools have tried opening later to better accommodate more students.
“The experiments were done in some big cities, and the results were impressive–good results for the children,” he says.
This trick is figuring out how to make these changes without disrupting parental work schedules and other societal habits. Some, such as biologist Christoph Randler, argue that that organizations should allow for more schedule variability to “bring out the best from their night owls,” an area in which universities tend to be especially accommodating.
Though it might seem like a trivial issue, especially since numerous societies view late sleepers as lazy, Dr. Ohayon argues that the effects of chronotypical differences can be dire. Sleep deprivation, which can occur when individuals are ill-suited to their mandated schedule, leads to extensive health issues. These include chronic fatigue, which is a major contributor to automobile accidents.
But it’s not clear that such success stories and stereotypes imply that owls should force themselves to love the morning (unless their schedules require it). It might be more beneficial for society as a whole to be more sensitive to individuals’ differences, rather than expecting everyone to follow the same schedule.
The difference between larks and owls has been long acknowledged, even long before science established what was known by common sense. The poet William Blake famous counseled, “Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.”
As for me, I feel I’ll always be on the side of Jarod Kintz, the author of This Book Has No Title, when he wrote, “4am–if I’m ever up that early, it’s because I’m up that late.”