New research shows that whether you’re a morning or an evening person really does depend on the hour of your birth. It might also help to determine a wide range of other crucial characteristics such as your intelligence, creativity or the likelihood of you becoming an artist or a criminal. It may even determine if you’re more likely to become depressed, develop ADHD or prone to diabetes.
About 15% of the population are night owls and about 15% are early birds, while the remaining 70% fall somewhere in between. The bad news is that if you’re a night owl trying to live an early bird’s lifestyle, you may be running the risk of ill health.
A team of psychologists from Cleveland State University in Ohio have investigated the relationship between time of birth and physical and mental make-up. To do this, they gave large groups of students mental-performance tests in the morning and again late in the afternoon. Then they compared the test results and the student’s health records against their time of birth.
Amazingly, the results matched – the students born in the morning scored better in the morning tests while those born later did better in the afternoon tests. These are significant results suggesting that a critical moment in setting the biological clock for alertness may indeed be the moment of birth. The findings have been reported in the Journal Of Social Psychology.
If the body clock is set when a baby is first exposed to the light of the world, the person’s circadian rhythm may be set for the rest of their life, depending of course on the quality and brightness of the light.
In addition, adults who were born prematurely are much more likely to be ‘extreme’ larks who habitually wake early and always seem ready and raring to go. A study of adults in their mid to late 20’s carried out by Dr Sonja Strang-Karlsson, a premature birth expert at Helsinki University, found that people who were born with very low birth weight naturally wake up on average 40 minutes earlier than anyone else.
So how come their body clocks are so advanced? Light seems to play a crucial role. Twenty years ago, it was standard practice in neonatal intensive-care units to leave the lights on all day and night. This seems to have set infant’s body clocks fast. It is only recently that hospitals have started to turn lights on and off and follow the outside world’s natural rhythms.
But those extreme lark children should have little to complain about. Dr Strang-Karlsson’s study concludes that ‘Morningness’ is associated with better health. Annoyingly for sleepy-eyed night owls, their jealous suspicions about larks being super-efficient goody-goodies seem to be true.
In a 2014 a study led by psychologist Dr Ana Adan at Barcelona University was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. It involved 700 people aged 18 to 32, and found that morning people tend to be more persistent in pursuing tasks. They are also more resistant to fatigue and frustration. These characteristics make the larks more likely to experience better life satisfaction and lower levels of anxiety. This makes them significantly less likely to get involved with drugs or other addictions.
A similar study of more than 600 Britons, conducted in 2007 by Surrey University’s Sleep Research Centre, concluded that morning people are more conscientious. The ancient Greeks must have noticed this too because the astrological texts they wrote 2,000 years ago say that people born under the sun (during the day) were far better at practical and business-like tasks, while those born under the moon (during the night) should be left to simpler stuff, such as looking after livestock!
However, it’s not all bad news for us night owls [and yes, I am one – hence my involvement in the entertainment industry] because evidence from a number of studies shows they tend to be more intelligent, creative and novelty seeking. [Yep. That’s definitely me!] A survey of 420 people carried out by Sydney University discovered that contrary to conventional wisdom, evening types were more likely to have higher intelligence scores.
But that’s where the good news ends for wise night owls. The rest of the evidence concurs that they tend to be a bunch of ailment-prone neurotics, prone to burnout and mood problems. Another study warns they are more likely to be aggressive and antisocial in their youth. Psychologists have also found they are more likely to suffer from depression or develop ADHD. [A lot of this is also true of me.]
Barcelona University’s Dr Ana Adan says a fundamental problem experienced by night owls may be caused by what she describes as ‘social jet-lag,’ a condition where one’s body clock runs at a different time to the demands of the rest of society. Dr Adan believes that evening types are well-known social jet-lag sufferers and they are often forced to adapt to the mainstream social schedule, which tends to be biased towards nine-to-five. Chronic social jet-lag places a heavy toll on the brain, which may be why night owls are significantly and statistically more likely to go off the mental rails.
Worse still may be the physical effects, particularly for people who have to fight their natural body clocks to get to work each morning.
A major study of more than 64,000 women conducted in 2015 by Harvard Medical School discovered that night owls have a significantly increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes if they have to work shifts that start early. This might be due to long-term inflammation in the body, which is a known cause of type 2 diabetes and can result from being chronically tired. So, it’s obviously much healthier for night owls to be allowed to function at their best during the hours that match their body clocks.
There is also another factor that affects these human attributes, and that is the way in which babies are born. When women are left to give birth naturally, the peak time for going into labour is about two o’clock in the morning. Babies who are born in the morning are usually the result of a short labour, while those born in the afternoon or evening most often undergo a long delivery. As a result of modern obstetric practices, the majority of babies, at least in the West, are now born during the day. This is because complications and deaths are more likely to occur at night and at weekends, when there are fewer expert staff on duty.
The balance between morning larks and night owls is shifting in the larks’ favour. That may bode well for creating a more ordered society, but it could also mean a society bereft of intelligent and creative people who can contribute untold and undiscovered wealth. Of course we need a population that works nine-to-five – they make ordered and functioning life possible, but we also need people who can make contributions that make life worth living!
Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.