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Early Birds and Night Owls

Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
— Benjamin Franklin

Blessed are the owls, for they shall inherit the mystery and magic of the night.
— Hilary Rubinstein

Do you ever feel that you’re just not in synch with the people around you? You’re soaking your brain in caffeine in the early a.m., trying to shake off sleep like a bear in spring, while your coworkers behave like busy beavers and Chatty Cathys. Then, just about the time everyone is clocking out, your brain lights up like a firecracker. If that sounds familiar, chances are you’re a night owl.

Night owls, or evening people, tend to stay awake past midnight, perhaps even until dawn. They feel most lively in the evening. Morning people, on the other hand, also known as early birds, early risers, or larks, get up around 6 a.m. and feel most energetic in the morning.

I’ve been a night owl since I was a kid. In the summertime in my preteen and teen years, I stayed up late reading or watching TV well past anyone else in the household—and I was the youngest. During the school year, I conformed to the school schedule, but those hours were never my preference. Nocturnal habits followed me into college, where I typically opted for afternoon classes and studied in the evenings.

Sometimes I lucked out with work. For instance, for a couple summers during college, I worked the swing shift at lumber mills, 4 p.m. to midnight, which coordinated well with my natural rhythms. (I also worked the graveyard shift, midnight to 8 a.m., but didn’t like that at all.) After graduation, however, daytime hours were the workplace norm, and getting up early, day in, day out, became an unpleasant grind. Before too many years had passed, I figured out a way to work for myself and set my own hours.

So why do some people feel more active in the morning and others in the evening? Are early birds and night owls just people with slightly altered sleep tendencies, or is there more to the phenomenon?

Science Says

Scientists have discovered that the number of people who identify as night owls or early birds is surprising high. A survey of more than four hundred adults found that about 15% were morning people, 25% were evening people, and 60% were intermediates, according to Carolyn Schur in Birds of a Different Feather.

Studies performed at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in 2008 showed that sleep-time preferences are often inherited, and additional research indicates that 50 percent of sleep-time choices are determined by genetic factors. In fact, rare gene mutations are linked to entire families whose members wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and cannot stay up much later than 8 p.m.

This all makes sense in the context of my family. My mom is a morning person and my dad (now deceased) was a night owl. My two oldest siblings follow my mom’s pattern, while my other sister and I are more evening people, like my dad.

Some speculate that the division between larks and owls is rooted in evolution, with early risers in the ancient past immersed in daytime activities such as food gathering, while owls took up guard duty as darkness descended.

The Benefits of “Earliness” and “Owliness”

Studies have uncovered certain trends among larks and owls. For instance, early birds tend to be more conscientious. They also display more positive emotions and are more proactive in general. “They tend to get better grades in school, which gets them into better colleges which then leads to better job opportunities,” according to Christopher Randler, a professor at the University of Education in Heidelberg, Germany. “Morning people also anticipate problems and try to minimize them,” he said. Night owls tend to be less reliable, less emotionally stable, and more likely to experience depression, addictions, and eating disorders.

And that’s not all. A recent study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences indicates that staying up late is associated with a “dark triad” of personality traits: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.

That all sounds pretty grim for owls, but take note of a few bright spots. Evening people, studies show, need less rest and are able to stay focused longer. Early birds may be more sensitive to sleep pressure than night owls. Oddly enough, evening people become physically stronger as the day goes on, but the strength of morning people remains the same throughout the day. People with higher IQs are more likely to be night owls, and they tend to have better memories and accumulate more wealth.

A Who’s Who of Larks and Owls

Examples abound of famous early risers and night people, so neither pattern appears to hold an edge for success. Benjamin Franklin of the well-known “early to bed” idiom was a dedicated early riser. He reportedly began each morning by asking himself “what good shall I do today?” and ended it with “what good did I do today?” Ernest Hemingway, John Grisham, George W. Bush, Condoleeza Rice, Napoleon, Tim Cook, and Rachael Ray also fall within the early bird category.

Famous night owls include Charles Darwin, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Florence King, Fran Lebowitz, Keith Richards, and Elvis Presley. Winston Churchill typically went to bed at 4 a.m. and rose late. As a result of his sleeping patterns, he often hosted War Cabinet meetings in his bath.

The Creativity Question

One question that arises when discussing sleep patterns is whether night owls are more creative. The answer might indeed be yes. A Spanish researcher found that early risers were more likely to be logical and analytical, while those who stayed up late were more imaginative and intuitive. Night owls scored better on creativity tests than did intermediary and morning people, according to a study published in the February 2007 issue of Personality and Individual Differences.

That’s not to say that creative early risers and analytical night owls don’t exist. As I researched this piece, I found that I have a mix of the traits for morning and evening people. For instance, I did well in school, and I’m conscientious and reliable, all characteristics of morning people, but I also at times demonstrate something of an artistic temperament. (My husband can attest to that.)

So what about you? Are you a lark? An owl? Something in between? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

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