Night Owls Have More Staying Power Than Early Birds, Brain Study Shows

By Eliza Strickland | April 24, 2009 8:53 am

early bird night owlResearchers have found fundamental differences between the brains of people who prefer to rise and greet the dawn each day, and those who don’t mind seeing a sunrise, but only if it’s at the end of a long night. A new study used brain scans and alertness tests to probe the brains of early birds and night owls, and found that people tend to favor mornings or nights based at least in part on how they react to a kind of competition in the brain [National Geographic News].

 Two factors control our bedtime. The first is hardwired: A master clock in the brain regulates a so-called circadian rhythm, which synchronizes activity patterns to the 24-hour day. Some people’s clocks tell them to go to bed at 9 p.m., others’ at 3 a.m…. The second factor–called sleep pressure–depends not on time of day but simply on how long someone has been awake already [ScienceNOW Daily News]. Sleep pressure builds up as hours of wakefulness increase. The new study, published in Science, suggests that early birds are more susceptible to sleep pressure, giving night owls the advantage in stamina.

In a sleep lab, the researchers studied people with extreme bedtimes, or chronotypes, both early and late. The larks in the study typically woke up between 4 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. and went to bed by 9 p.m. The night owls, or evening chronotypes, left to their own devices would go to bed at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. and rise at noon [Science News]. All the test subjects maintained their preferred sleep schedules to avoid interfering with their circadian rhythms, and took tests measuring their alertness 1.5 hours after waking, and again 10.5 hours after waking. In the earlier test researchers saw no difference between the two groups’ performances, but in the later test the night owls performed better than the early birds, and also topped their own prior test results.

FMRI brain scans told the rest of the tale. In the night owls, increased activity was seen in two parts of the brain at 10.5 hours — the suprachiasmatic nucleus area and the locus coeruleus — that are involved in regulating the circadian signal. Essentially, the circadian signal was winning out over the pressure to sleep. In the early birds, on the other hand, “the sleep pressure prevents the expression of the circadian signal,” so those individuals were less able to keep their attention focused [LiveScience], says study coauthor Philippe Peigneux. The study is the first to show that circadian rhythms and sleep pressure interact to govern behavior; researchers previously believed that the two systems operated independently.

But while night owls seem to handle sleep pressure better, the late-to-bed strategy might backfire outside the lab…. “Morning types may be at an advantage, because their schedule is fitting better with the usual work schedule of the society,” [Peigneux] said. “It may represent a problem for evening types obliged to wake up early while having difficulties going to bed in the evening, eventually leading to a sleep debt” [National Geographic News].

Related Content:
80beats: Jet Lagged? Blame Your Desynchronized Brain Cells
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80beats: Sleep Experiment Shows the “Graveyard” Shift Is Aptly Named
DISCOVER: 20 Things You Didn’t Know About… Sleep
DISCOVER: Mind Over Time asks whether we can alter circadian rhythms
DISCOVER: Night Owls vs. Early Birds

Images: flickr / Eric Kilby and MyAngelG

  • Ryan

    Interesting though I beleive that they should have included the third schedule of the day, go to bed at 11 a.m. or noon and rise at 7pm or so.

  • Karl

    As a nightowl myself, I am happy to know that I am outperforming my wussie “morning person” friends!

  • Carl

    It’s good to know studies are going on relating to this subject because I have to struggle really hard to keep normal working hours, but when everyone else buggers off home in the afternoon I’m raring to go because I’m just starting to reach my most efficient time. I really suffer from the lack of sleep though. I cannot get to sleep early unless something has made me really tired. I also often stay awake overnight to force myself to sleep the following night, but my body clock seems to prefer sleeping through the morning rather than through the night. Unfortunately there don’t seem to be any decent jobs around for night owls, so we are forced to suffer the hours of the early birds.Hmmmm, I wonder if this could fall under the discrimination act…

  • Judy

    My happiest schedule was 1:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., but those days are over (sigh). Even in the city that never sleeps, most of the jobs are 9 to 5. Carl, when you get the class action suit ready let me know!

  • Marianne

    Most irritating of all is to constantly be told that you’re just lazy, and that there’s no such thing as early birds or night owls. The majority of people (early birds) remain convinced that those who struggle with getting up in the morning have misaligned sleep schedules.

    I’ve always been able to work long hours after noontime without breaks. My coworkers have their regular lunch hours, but I’m not hungry for lunch until about 4pm.

    Another fascinating article is on the National Geographic website…google ‘early birds and night owls’. It describes how samples of skin cells taken from people in a recent study will fluoresce and pulse under the microscope, and that the rate of the pulse will identify each group separately.

  • Bob Snyder

    Ryan, you don’t learn about the body/mind by studying the norm, you learn by studying the extremes, the dysfunctional.

  • SMH

    Before the party-all-night Dionysians get too excited, wait for the other shoe to drop: a study will be reported clearly showing that culture and society does in fact benefit from all the early birds out there rather than the night owls.

    Of course, I believe the natural historians will tell us that mammals started out actually being nocturnal animals by necessity.

    But as the eons passed, there was something called “evolution,” and apparently it was such that we bipedal creatures came out from the night and into the daylight. If evolution is truly a progression, that is, it represents an improvement, and this improvement is in the intelligence of a sapient species, then I propose that the advancement of humankind is attributable more to the early birds and less to the night owls.

    I admit though that I say this as a person unable to sleep at all when the first dawn of light fills my bedroom.

  • YouRang

    I would fail the part about doing well an hour and a half after waking; it takes me at least 5 hours to get to normal functioning and I crash about 2 hours after rising; and my functioning keeps rising until about 1-2 hours after going to bed. I suspect that’s why my PSAT (taken several hours after waking) was 75 (anticipating an SAT of 800) and my actual SAT taken an hour after waking was 712.
    And re what homo was before evolution; they were more likely to be functional at dawn and dusk when they could see and when the savanna heat was not over-powering their relatively hairy bodies.

  • Rad

    RE: SMH

    Your conclusions are highly subjective, in fact you admit in the last sentence that you are not an objective party. A study may indeed find that society benefits from it’s present schedule; that’s because our entire infrastructure is built around the 9 to 5 workday. One would have to experiment with several large groups of people over a long period of time to obtain any useful data beyond pure speculation.

    I’d design the experiment as such:

    Gather a group of 4000 subjects. Arrange them into four groups.

    Group A should be a group of self professed ‘larks’ and be put on a schedule that revolves around being an early riser.

    Group B should be a group of self professed ‘night owls’ and likewise should have a schedule that accomodates them.

    Group C should be a mixture of both owls and larks. They might be put on a rotating schedule which periodically switches.

    Group D is the control and should comprise a random group of subjects on the orthodox 9 to 5 schedule.

    Obviously the experiment would have to screen the subjects beforehand and arrange a battery of tests (such as IQ, health, sensory, etc.) to determine that all groups have an equal distribution of personality types so as to not skew the results. Once the group was assembled they should be put into a controlled environment and monitored for at least a year, preferably more. Data would be collectly daily and entered into a collective pool for each group. At the end of the test it should be obivious whether any group consistently outperformed the other (of course they would not know about the other groups as not to instill competition). On the other hand you might see that there is no difference or that the control is more consistent.

    The point is that we need some solid data and a very large group of diverse subjects to make any real conclusions.

    By the way, I happen to be a night owl.

  • http://discovermagazine Jess

    I have been redeemed! I am a definitely an owl and not a dove! When I do get to work around 9:00 am, my engines are steamed and I am ready to get right into my job; thank goodness because the minute I do get there, everyone else is finally awake. I put in long days, but I am on the go from the time I get there until the time I leave. I am focused and extremely productive. My biggest pet peeve in the workplace is the worker that makes the comment, (as they are heading for the door at the end of their work day at 3:00 in the afternoon…)”Well I’ve been here since 6:30″!! That drives me crazy.. SO WHAT!!! What that individual did since 6:30 is what is most important, not the time they physically arrived in the building. Early birds have always seemed to get the admiration for getting up early and getting after the day… blah blah blah,. I once had this fear of being caught sleeping after 7:30 in the morning on a weekend… whatever. I love my sleep and when I am awake, watch out because I am a powerhouse and I don’t stop until late at night. I would be confident to say that I probably do more in the first hour of my day than allot of folks accomplish in their entire day.

  • Matt

    I’d like to add to what Ryan said, people like us are really overlooked and we don’t even have a name. I’m one of those people whose natural sleep time is between 11 AM and 2 PM and natural waking time is between 7 PM and 9 PM. What are we called?

  • JSiobhan

    Bi-peds came out during day when they discovered how to farm for their food supply. With technology and the global economy, business are redefining the traditional work schedules .

    This article proves our individual differences are defined by complex functions of the brain and behavior patterns are driven by unique biological structures of every human beings. How many Night Owls are living their life without reaching their full potential because they are not given the opportunity to work when their body is primed for peak performance.

  • Meike

    How is the circadian rhythm of a person defined? How do you know for sure what is each person’s biological rhythm? Aren’t there multiple factors, such as social pressure, which affect to the rhythm? Maybe a person’s practical rhythm is a compromise between all the different factors?

    I would like to know circadian rhythm statistics of the population. Is there any? Where I could see one? How many different types there are? Are there different rhythms continuously around the clock or are there only certain discrete types of rhythms? What is the most active time of the day to each and what is the best time to sleep to each?

    As a “night owl” I also would like to know some guides on how to best adapt to this society without suffering too much of the “wrong” rhythm of it. The “night owls” should be understood better instead of judging them.

  • Cheryl

    I am a night owl and I love it and I will NEVER change, don’t want to. I NEED to get my 8 1/2 to 9 hours sleep between 1:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m., definitely not earlier than that. If I try to, I’m a wreck all day. It hurts to get up early, it’s terrible. If I go go to sleep at 1:00 and get up at 10:00 I feel my very, very best. I work at home for myself and have set my availability hours for 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. My energy level goes up as the afternoon, evening and night go on. I actually have to take a mild sleeping pill to MAKE me go to sleep around 1:00. If I didn’t have to get up for anything the next day I’d probably go to sleep around 3:00 and get up at noon. Suits me to perfection.

  • amandria

    Cheryl I am like you however I can’t find a sleeping pill that works. I take one like tylenol p.m. and I will go to sleep for 1 hour, take a pill like unisom and I won’t sleep for hours but when I do I will sleep 10/12 hours missing my whole day…I hate it. Rest of family on the early birds, I would like to be more like the rest of the people sleeping earlier and getting up earlier vs staying awake for sooo many hours and sleeping strange hours during the day like a vampire

  • Barbara

    I am a night owl, and if left to my own devices, I would stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. and get up at 10 or 11 a.m. I have recently started taking 3 mg of melatonin at night (ideally about 11 pm) so that I am sleepy by around midnight. That way, I can get up at 8 a.m. if I need to, but I can still sleep until 10 or 11 if I want to. But I find the melatonin does help and does not make me feel drugged. Interestingly, when we have been in Alaska or Hawaii (different time zones) I find I am sleepy at 11 p.m. (3 a.m. eastern time) and ready to get up at 7 or 8 a.m. Maybe I was born in the wrong time zone!

  • Ashley

    This stuff is true… I swear it is. My sleep schedule has been flipped since I was a small child. I’ve always had trouble getting to sleep before 4:00am and if left to my own devices I usually go to sleep anywhere from 7:00am to 10:00am and wake up between 6:00pm and 10:00pm (It’s actually 4:48 in the morning at this very moment and I’ve been up for about 7 hours now). I think I’m an extreme case but I’m sure there are probably others. I’ve noticed that I tend to sleep about 3 to 4 hours longer than most people as well but I also stay up alot longer (20-24 hours at a time, comfortably).

    I’m highly alert at night, but when forced into a morning schedule I am a zombie. I do eventually get to a point where I experience an increase in energy, but it doesn’t happen until well into the evening (if I get up at 7:00 am, for example, I’m pretty much on autopilot until about 7:00pm or so, and then I’m good to go until about 4:00am or later). I don’t experience that extended period of lethargy at night like I do during the day.

    The other thing I noticed is if I successfully reverse my sleep schedule, it only lasts for a week at most and my wake up times get later and later each day. It’s frustrating because it makes normal daily tasks an absolute nightmare. Not to mention the fact that my immune system all but disappears… I get sick almost every time I do it (I mean laid up sick… 102-103 degree fevers, sore throat, can’t breath, hear or smell a thing, nose is pouring for like five days, etc.)

    I can’t be stationary for long if I’m up during the day. Either I hold a physically demanding job that keeps me moving around, or I fall asleep at every opportunity without realizing it.

    I’m not lazy in the slightest. I’m a highly active person and I’m in excellent physical shape (I work out for 2 to 3 hours a day… though I usually do it between 11:00pm and 3:00am). I like morning and I really wish I had some control over my sleep patterns, but at 24 years old I’ve pretty much stopped fighting nature. I need to find a career that suits my schedule… I doubt that I’ll ever be able to hold a 9:00-5:00 job.

  • asharnanae

    well, I am a night owl. I have always been, even as a tiny baby. My parents would see me sitting in my cot, quietly playing with my toys, amusing myself until 4am, whereupon I the went to sleep until around 10am, got fed, then went back to sleep until 12 or 1pm. Often I had another nap around 4pm.

    If left to my own devices, I always revert to a nocturnal schedule. Going to bed at about 3-5am and getting up between 12-2pm. Unfortunately for my sleep pattern, I work as a teacher, so I have to get up at 7am. Now, I have done this long enough that I function ok till around 10 or 11. But then after that I start to pick up. but its not really until after 6pm that I get my best most creative work done.

    Interestingly, I never eat breakfast, even the thought of food before 10am makes me feel mildly sick. I can just about do coffee. The only way I can force myself to eat early is if I am getting up at around 5am, and know that I am not going to be eating until much later in the day, starving myself, so I have to eat right away. Even then, I end up force feeding myself, chewing and chewing tiny bites, not enjoying it at all. And those of you who may be thinking I do not enjoy food at any time would be dead wrong. I LOVE FOOD! Its hard to stop me eating in the PM end of the time zone.

    I generally deal with my sleeping habits by going into sleep debt in the working week, getting between 4 and 6 hours per night, then doing catchup of 12 to 16 hours per night/morning at the weekends. I occasionally nap in the afternoons as well.

    I once had a job that meant I had to get up at 5 am regularly. I ended up shift sleeping, 4 hours at night an 4 hours in the afternoon, I got so confused with what day it was. Added to that I was dog tired all the time, no energy at all. so yeah, gave that one up pritty quick.

    One thing that further interests me, is that I have very good night/low light vision, I actually find it difficult to work in bright sunlight, I wear sunglasses year round, and coming from the UK, thats saying something. Is this due to me being a night owl? Do any other night owls have good night vision?

  • KK

    I always knew that there were people like us. I’ve been a night owl since I was very young. I remember being 5 yrs. and watching late night TV. Friends have a daughter who at 11 months couldn’t go to sleep at the same time as her siblings — at 11 pm, I would take her out of her crib when I was visiting. Finally a doctor told them to put her to bed later. But, what I’m trying to do now is to help lead her to a career that will be compatible with being a night owl. Any ideas?

    Yes, I also have good night/low light vision and I wear sunglasses year-round. We have cloudy skies, too. I still need the sunglasses. And I usually do better driving for hours on the highway if I’m driving at night. Too bad the rest of the world lives on another clock!

  • GokuBlk

    The greatest factor of determining someones sleep pattern is their diet. High sugar/processed food diets for example destroy energy levels. I believe this study should be based more internally on what the subjects eat. A study should be done in which the subjects eat nothing but raw foods for a month vs. subjects that eat the typical American diet of high sugar/high processed food intake. This way we can come to a more accurate conclusion.

  • Night Owl

    I too am a night owl and have found my perfect job as an Emergency Room nurse. I work 7pm-7:30 am 3 days a week.

    For those of you wondering what kind of jobs are decent paying and offer night time hours think health care! Nurse, ER doc, hospitalist, resp therapist, sleep lab tech…the list goes on and on as the hospital never sleeps and there are lots of people on night shift dying to get on day shift….there just aren’t enough night shifters.

  • steph

    interesting, all my life i’ve been a night owl, and i’m 53. i also was a teacher, and as the week went on, i went to bed later and later, and on the weekends would crash for 24+ hours.

    I remember when i was in my early 30’s, i had to be in a hospital waiting room at 6 a.m. there were armrests on all the chairs, so i just laid on the floor and slept.

    when i was teaching, i psyched myself up because i wanted to be high energy in the a.m. for my students, but i have to admit that i had a lot of absences during my teaching career because i just couldn’t get up, i was so tired.

    there is no such thing as a “20 minute power nap for me”, if i came home after work and “took a nap”, i never wanted to get up until the next workday. or if it was not a work day, i liked to sleep until i got up. when i had young children, i had to get up for dinner, but it wasn’t easy. and then i couldn’t go to sleep later until 1 or 2 a.m. and have to be up at 6, it was a vicious cycle.

    whenever i had to get up early, and it wasn’t a workday, i was sluggish and tired and just felt off kilter. my mouth tasted funny all day.

    now i’m divorced, live alone and am retired. my sleep schedule? go to sleep at 7 or 8 a.m (i have to take a lunesta just to knock me out, and depending on what i have to do during the day, i get up between 12 and 6. it is still takes effort sometimes to not feel guilty about “sleeping the day away”.

  • John

    I am a full-fledged night owl. I am happiest after the sun sets, and I have the most energy and creativity during the night hours. I really like nothing at all about the daytime with all the hustle and bustle, traffic, etc. I sleep best when I go to bed at around sunrise or just before, and sleep until 2pm or 3pm. It really irritates me that smug day people are catered to, but there is absolutely no consideration for night people. I think that all offices should include swing and graveyard shifts. Presently, most of the higher paying jobs are on a day shift. Why should a night person have to either be forced onto day shift so they can make a decent living while their health declines from the stress of having to completely alter their schedule, or accept a low-paying night shift and barely scrape by to pay their bills? This is absolutely discrimination against night people. I am sick of (and sick from) having to change my whole life around for day people. I will NEVER be a day person, so I guess I just have to suffer and work a day shift if I want to have a decent paying job so I can actually afford to live any kind of comfortable life (i.e. actually being able to afford both a roof over my head, pay my bills, and buy food). My health has already been destroyed (i.e. getting 4 hours of sleep a night) by being subjected to a day schedule for many years when I had a decently paying office job. After two years of applying for jobs, I just landed a job at Wal-Mart where I will be working the swing shift. While I love the shift hours from 4pm to 1am, I suffer by being paid a little over minimum wage. More employers need to start catering to night people just as they cater to people of all races and genders, disabled people, etc. There needs to be more night jobs (especially office jobs) with pay that is equivalent to that of day jobs. My best option right now is to go back to school to become a nurse (since they have great pay) and get on a night shift.

  • LC Goff

    I AGREE 100%. You have all expressed everything I, too, have experienced. I absolutely HATE when some cocky day person tells me “You’ll adjust”, or “You need to go to bed earlier”. No, I won’t adjust and if I went to bed earlier, I’d just lie there wide awake. But let me tell them the opposite and they tell me, “Oh, I could never stay up that late!” Exactly my point! I now have an at-home job I start at 1 p.m. after waking around 10 or 11 a.m. and I work until 9 p.m. (My preferred shift is 11 p.m. – 7 a.m. or so, but I’ll settle for these hours). After that, I do what I need to do around the house. If I try to do anything before 10 a.m., it’s like pushing a wheelbarrow uphill all day. I’m tired of living my life to accommodate others’ schedules. I’m semi-retired and now it’s my time. No, I do NOT want to get up to go yard sale-ing at 7 a.m. There’s nothing I need that badly. God Bless all us night owls!

  • Stella

    Oh, it’s SO good to find people who are like-minded. Thank you, thank you!!! I was fired from a job recently due to my inability to shift my work schedule from 10 to 7, which I had been handling very well, to 8 to 5 due to a management switch. I was late (8:15 to 8:20) most days, and of course, I had the “talking to” by my new manager to tell me that this was unacceptable. I tried to explain myself, but he said that “not being able to wake up is not an excuse,” that I would just need to set more alarm clocks (I already use 3), and that “as an adult, we have to make choices that get us to work on time.” Trust me, I told him that I had been to doctors and sleep clinics to try to fix the issue, but he simply didn’t care. I was KILLING myself to get to work on time after that, throwing up when I forced myself out of bed because my stomach was rebelling against the early hours, driving 80 on the highway, literally sprinting up the stairs to get to my desk on time — but I didn’t make it on time most days, and he finally called me into his conference room with an HR rep and they told me to collect my things and get out. This from a manager who has no problem with employees who come in at 6 a.m. and leave at 3 p.m. — what is the difference between that and working from 10-7? None!! The sad thing is that the first thing I thought after I was fired was, “well, at least I can sleep late tomorrow.” I found another job soon after with later hours (9 to 6), but I’ve been 10-15 minutes late a few times and have already had an email sent to me by my current boss to tell me that I “need to make a better effort” to come in on time. I am seriously considering a complete career overhaul, because this isn’t working. And here’s the funny thing — in all my jobs, I am perfectly willing to stay as late as necessary or come in on weekends to meet or exceed the 40-hour requirement. Usually, I work 42/43 hours a week, and when it’s busy, 50 or more. I work hard, I am otherwise completely responsible, and my performance reviews have always been spectacular with the one exception. No one is willing to look past my schedule — in their minds, even though I produce excellent work, the fact that I can’t come in on time means that I have a poor work ethic. I’m sick of it! I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but something’s gotta change.

  • braintrain4u2

    It’s comforting to know that there are other people too who face similar unusual issues.
    I am not sure about superiority of my night vision but in daylight in Sun I find it very hard to keep my eyes open. I am sensitive to noise disturbances also.

    Some people believe, evolutionarily people can be divided into two groups- ‘hunter’ group and ‘farmer’ group.
    I think night owl belong to ‘hunter’ group while other people belong to ‘farmer’ group.
    hunter group must be more active in night. they are likely to be more co-operative.

    i find that these people are also more emotional and are very helpful- specifically these are the kind of people who are likely to help without waiting to be asked to help!
    they have tendency to day dream… and are usually more creative!
    they are risk taker and love adventure (driving fast, bungee jumping, paragliding, …)

    on down side, they are likely to be impulsive.. creative ideas come to their mind but they find it tough to execute.. because that requires discipline and sustained focussed effort where they are generally poor (exception being the very high value projects.. where these people really shine!).

    Here are few suggestions:
    1. Fish oil: try taking fish oil daily for about a month. it very significantly increases the level of alertness. particularly, fish oil with high EPA to DHA ratio. ratio of 1.5 is usually available but around 4 or 5 can also be found. go for higher ratio… higher the better.
    Dosage: around 1 gram/day (i read somewhere, upto 2 gram/day is safe dosage)
    if you take too little, you may not notice any effect at all! it takes about 15 days to show its effects. i guess reason of the delay in obtaining perceptible improvements could be that the deficiency needs to be removed to certain minimum extent/threshold level before which behavioral changes can appear.
    a)you shouldn’t be on any other medication or having a health condition, if so, consult your physician first.
    b) it is a blood thinner. particularly avoid taking it with other blood thinner medicines which are given for heart patients, etc.

    2. take high protein food items for the first meal in morning: this helps in having better focus/concentration.

    3. Avoid sugar: most of you would be lover of sugary food items genetically! taking fish oil will help. you can notice it in withing a month that your cravings will go down and self control will improve on its own!

    4. 30 minutes of brisk walk/slow running: it helps you wake up. certain brain chemicals are produced in the brain with aerobic exercises.
    for these people, aerobic exercise is particularly helpful as they are particularly deficient in certain brain chemicals (dopamine!).

    5. visit, fill their questionnaire.. which helps you diagnose what kind of brain you have got!

    6. Book: ‘Making a good brain great’ by Dr. Amen, you would find it helpful.

    Wish you guys- good luck, in your endeavour to be able to cater with life in a better way!



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