Thursday, August 13, 2015

Early Bird or Night Owl

Which are you? Do you get up at the crack of dawn raring to go? Or do you like to sleep in and then stay up until all hours of the night? Who do you suppose has the best attention level? I’ve always wondered about this.

As I think back on my younger years, I realize I’ve changed from a night owl to an early bird, but not without help. If you have a cat (or a dog), you’ll understand what I mean by the word “help.”  Nothing pleased me more when I was growing up than to read into the wee hours of the morning. When it was time to wake up, my mom cajoled me out of bed to ready myself for school. That became a habit. I learned to depend on someone else to get me up.

The habit became a problem in college. Roommates are not dependable alarm clocks. There were so many distractions to keep me up like the student center for late-night snacking and meeting friends, and those parties and dances that went on forever. All my classes were early ones, and my daytime attention level suffered from lack of sufficient sleep and showed in my grades. I managed to moderate my behavior by getting to bed by midnight and waking at 7 A.M. to the jingle of my new alarm clock. My grades improved, but I always felt “sharper” late in the day.

After marriage, and children, my sleep hours got muddled again. I couldn’t say what I was, night owl or early bird…just all the time fowl!

But now, at my advanced age, I think I am a night owl. I continue to read late into the wee hours even though Mopsy, my kitty, wakes me between 5:30 and 6 A.M. I compensate with daytime naps.

Recently, I stumbled onto a couple of interesting studies. Some researchers at the University of Liege in Belgium attempted to answer my question. Who has the best attention level? Night owls or early birds? Using volunteer participants from both groups and magnetic resonance imaging, they monitored the volunteers’ brains for focus of attention, peaks and troughs of alertness, and cognitive performance throughout the day. Working in a sleep clinic, participants were allowed to follow their normal sleep schedule. Upon arising, they were tested after 1.5 hours and 10.5 hours of wakefulness. They were asked to perform tasks requiring sustained attention.

At 1.5 hours the attention levels of the two groups were found to be no different, but after 10.5 hours of being awake, the night owl group was found to be much more focused than the early birds. Does this surprise you? It did me.

Two mechanisms controlling alertness were determined to be responsible for the difference in the shift between the two groups, specifically, our built-in circadian clock which is triggered by light, and that part of the homeostatic process that says “you need to go to sleep after being awake a certain number of hours.” This pressured the early birds to think more about sleep than their task at hand. It had been thought prior to this study the two mechanisms operated independently, but upon observing the MRI’s, it’s now known they are always interacting together.

Most importantly, this study tells us a night job definitely would be inappropriate for an early bird, but, conversely, a day job would be appropriate for a night owl. Well, 
let’s hear it for the night owls! 

In another more recent study our very genes have been linked to early bird or night owl tendencies. Scientists discovered a “wake up” gene, PER 1, which is linked to our circadian timing. Researchers genotyped volunteers and were able to compare sleep-wake cycles to genetic profiles. They made an interesting discovery. They found that variations of this gene affect our circadian rhythm and are shown to play a part in the timing of major medical events, even heart attacks.

This study population discovered that early birds tend to have major medical events, including death, typically around 11 A.M., while night owls were more likely to pass away around 6 P.M.

This discovery opens the door to new ways for managing our health. If we pay more attention to our natural circadian clock, perhaps our health could benefit by knowing when we’re most vulnerable, especially in relation to timing exercise, medicine, and medical treatment.


After thinking about these studies, I wonder if it’s wise to try to change our natural wake-sleep habits. Perhaps, it would be less stressful to listen to our inner signals. Now, if only I could  get Mopsy to cooperate.

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