Ravenblog: Are you a night owl or an early bird?

For many centuries society has been morning-oriented, thanks in part to our agricultural past. People who are ‘morning people’ have always been seen as hardworking, and all-round better people than ‘night owls’ who would rather sleep in and stay up all night. When you tell someone that you regularly wake up at noon, almost everyone will immediately think you are being lazy, slothful and unhealthy. Many people in fact refer to ‘late risers’ as if they have ‘delayed sleep cycle disorder, as if preferring to wake up late is a disorder, like schizophrenia or depression.

Well, thanks to some great modern science, we now know that our sleep preferences are actually biological, and genetic, and not subject to societal whims. There are in fact biological settings in each of our cells, determined by our genes, that decide when we get sleepy and when we naturally wake up. And, those settings shift over our lifetimes. Children are mostly morning people by nature (they have an ‘early chronotype’ or a type-A chronotype), but as they hit puberty most kids become ‘late risers’ (‘late chronotype’ or type-B chronotype). Not only do most teenagers biologically need more sleep, to let their rapidly changing bodies recharge, but they naturally fall asleep later and wake up later. So, all those kids who are groggy and drifting off to sleep in their 8am classes really ought to have been allowed to sleep, if school was really about education and learning rather than control and conformity.

Adults mostly have a natural sleep pattern that matches the norms of modern society, but about 1/4 of humans are naturally early risers and 1/4 are naturally late risers just from one gene’s distribution, and only the remaining 2/4 of humans have the right genes to have a ‘normal’ bedtime that is before midnight and a ‘normal’ wake time that is before 8am. And, there are almost certainly other genes that affect our sleep patterns too, so that some of us late risers, or type-B’s, are extreme late risers by nature. Most people are most productive in the morning or early afternoon, but for a particular type of late risers (like me) bedtime is at about 4am, we wake up between 11am and noon, and our most alert, productive time of day is actually between midnight and 4am. It makes no sense to most people, for whom doing anything much after midnight seems crazy, but if you have that particular genetic code to be an extreme late riser, you may be cheating yourself out of your best hours each day by trying to conform to the rest of society’s expectations.

There is still much more research to be done, but just from what we know now, it makes a lot of sense to re-evaluate how we percieve time and schedules. Why do all teenagers have to wake up at 6am to be at school by 7:30am? Why do workdays have to be 8/9am-5/6pm? Is it more important to have everyone awake at the same time and at work at the same time, or to have everyone reach their best potentials?

What do you think?

For more information:

Internal Time: The Science of Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired. Maria Popova (http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/05/11/internal-time-till-roenneber/ )

Night Owls Have More Staying Power Than Early Birds, Brain Study Shows. Eliza Strickland. DiscoverMagazine.com. (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2009/04/24/night-owls-have-more-staying-power-than-early-birds-brain-study-shows/#.U33EyHYR-PQ )

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About Ravenmount

Independent science nerd/writer/music blogger/arts enthusiast/theorist currently in Colorado.
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