Are You an Early Bird or a Night Owl?

If one believes what William Camden has to say, “the early bird catches the worm”.

This may be true, but some of us are less concerned with catching worms than we are about catching enough sleep.  How do you start your day?  Do you wake up early, naturally, feeling refreshed, alert and raring to go?  Or, when you hear your alarm going off, do you feel as if you are being violated, ripped from a deep sleep in the middle of the night?  In a restaurant, after enjoying a meal with friends, do you get your second wind and ask where the party is moving on to?  Or do you start yawning when the bill arrives and mumble that the only club you will be heading for is Club Duvet?

Most of us can classify ourselves as being either larks or night owls.  So, what does this say about your personality and behaviour?  Let’s have a look at night owls first.  It is fitting that they are more likely to be party animals than the early birds, enjoying late nights and the smoking and drinking of alcohol that often accompany them.  The results of a study of 537 Finnish individuals found that owls consume more alcohol than their early rising counterparts.  Further research conducted on twins in the same country revealed that night owls are also far more likely to become dependent on nicotine than their clean-living worm-catching friends.  They tend to be smokers who, once they have started, are far less likely than the early birds to eventually give up the habit, which often becomes lifelong.

The tendency to procrastinate is another commonly shared trait amongst night owls.  In 1997, a veteran delay researcher named Joseph Ferrari of DePaul found that night owls tend to avoid tasks that need to be completed.  According to recent studies, being a night owl also increases the likelihood of a person experiencing depression and obesity.

Early birds are, on the whole, more compliant than night owls, tending to conform to society’s expectations more so than their nocturnal counterparts.  They also experience less insomnia; one in five morning people have insomnia, compared to nearly two in five night owls.  A recent study identifies genetic variants associated with being a morning person, which are linked to healthier outcomes in terms of depression and body mass index.

So, what exactly determines which kind of bird a person becomes?  According to Seth Blackshaw, an associate professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins in America, it can all be traced back to something very small, with a very big name.  The miniscule suprachiasmatic nucleus or nuclei (SCN), a tiny region of the brain situated in the hypothalamus, is responsible for controlling something called our circadian rhythms.  Now, this has nothing to do with our ability to pull cool dance moves.  One’s circadian cycle is a fancy name for the waking and sleeping schedule that one keeps. The cycle is set to about twenty-four hours, but exposure to light resets it each morning, so that we’re always in rhythm with the sun.  One’s SCN is responsible for regulating a broad range of both body functions and physiological processes, including metabolism, mood, cognitive function, memory, depression, and even reproduction.

Women and adults over sixty years of age are more likely to be morning people.  If a father is a morning person, there are 2.4-times higher odds that his daughter will also be a morning person, while his son has 1.9-times higher chance.

The season in which you were born can also be a factor in determining whether you will end up being a lark or a night owl.  Generally speaking, people born in Autumn and Winter are more likely to be morning people than those born during Spring or Summer.  This may be explained by the fact that the days are a lot shorter in Winter than they are in Summer.  It has been suggested that people who are born at a time when the days are short are more sensitive to light, and so become early risers … almost as if they are trying to get as much exposure to sun as possible.  This may be because melatonin, a hormone which increases or decreases with the length of the day (and thus with the seasons), sets up the circadian cycle for future use.

Interestingly, one would think that birds of a feather would flock together.  Strangely, however, research shows that morning people are more likely to hook up with night owls than their fellow larks.

Winston Churchill famously claimed, “We are all worms.  But I believe that I am a glow-worm”.  Whether he was referring to his ability to shine and do his best work at night, or the transparency that comes with being a famous person, is debatable.  Either way, let’s live and let live, celebrate our differences and accept that we are all wired differently. Leave the early birds to catch the worms and let the night owls take care of the glow-worms!

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