In the wee hours of the night, my bedroom could easily be the headquarters of some fledgling interdisciplinary think tank. From dusk to dawn, you can find me drawing a portrait of Sade, rearranging furniture, drafting a business plan for a food truck that doubles as a dollar van, or daydreaming about which neighborhood venues could be modified if the Olympics were held in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, much more pressing real life responsibilities—schoolwork and job apps— need to be fulfilled before the morning sun rises. And they usually are.
Whether the culprit is sheer procrastination or a truly overbooked schedule, I find that late at night is when I’m the most inclined to take care of business and also have miscellaneous unnecessary creative epiphanies.
The tendency to be at peak productivity after midnight doesn’t mesh well with our modern day sleep cycle which revolves around a 9-to-5 workday. Early risers are typically considered to be more responsible and successful people. Many of us night creatures know at least one smug early bird who quotes some ancient Greek philosopher or founding father about the virtues of waking up early as we squint at them, pupils not yet adjusted to the daylight. I’d say that if Aristotle or Benjamin Franklin had electricity, they would’ve ditched the holier-than-thou ‘healthy, wealthy, and wise,’ B.S. and taken advantage of the opportunity to tuck a few hours of productivity into their evenings.
Research does confirm distinct physiological differences between those who are up with the roosters and habitual night-prowlers. The latter could be a response to a delayed circadian rhythm, our internal clock that sends cues for a steady rhythm of waking, eating, sleeping, etc. Some of those cues include fluctuations in melatonin, body temperature, and sleep drive. “Melatonin is mainly a night hormone that is suppressed when a person is in bright light,” explains Daniel Kripke, emeritus professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego. “Melatonin influences sleepiness, while body temperature tends to fall soon before sleep onset and starts rising from its low point at night about two hours from waking.”
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To provide an analogy, these mechanisms “have roles as ‘messengers’ to other parts of the brain and body, helping keep the ‘orchestra in tune,’” says Brant Hasler, assistant professor of psychiatry at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “Rise in melatonin and drop in body temperature are tightly linked to the rise in sleep propensity at the end of the day.” Some night owls, despite being stigmatized as lazy and reckless, are simply at the mercy of this intricate biological process, a lagged version of that experienced by morning larks. This delayed sleep phase is believed to be partly heritable, and one recent study even claimed that it can be the result of a specific genetic mutation. However, the research there remains inconclusive.
As for the stereotypical image of a night owl being a degenerate adolescent, there is some biological basis for why people tend to start their day earlier as they age.
Now what about that middle of the night upswing in creativity? Sometimes it feels like my mind is in a torpid state all day long, only to be awakened by a febrile imagination long after the sun goes down. Hasler tells me that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with ability to concentrate, begins to falter as sleep drive increases at the end on the day. For some, this clears the way for more flexible thinking—and potentially, creativity. “With less of that top-down control and ‘cognitive inhibition,’ the brain might be freed up for more divergent thinking, allowing one to make new associations between different concepts more easily.” Hasler says that this effect combines with what research suggests is a peak in positive mood during the second half of the day, which can also be a catalyst for inventive thoughts.
Another potential stimulant for late night innovation is REM sleep, the latter half of the sleep phase in which rapid side-to-side movement of the eyes occurs. This portion of the sleep cycle is associated with an altered brain state linked to creativity, my experts tell me. There are plenty of famous examples of scientists whose discoveries came to them in a dream and writers, visual artists, etc. who operate on a mostly nocturnal schedule.
Night owls operating on that Frank Ocean-style ‘every night fucks every day up, every day patches the night up’ routine can end up exhausted. Hasler, however, sheds new light on the consequences of night owls skimping on sleep during the week and then falling back into our natural rhythms for the weekend. “This results in what’s technically called ‘circadian misalignment’ and more colorfully, but aptly, described as ‘social jet lag.’ This bouncing back and forth between weekday and weekend time zones is akin to jet lag, with some folks doing the equivalent of traveling from San Francisco to New York City every week,” he says.
An example of an incredibly high functioning and self-proclaimed “night guy” is former president Barack Obama. While in office, the later hours were his alone time, either for work or watching ESPN. The same motivation can ring true even for those of us who don’t navigate that busy or high pressure of a lifestyle. Whether it’s a crowded household or a noisy city, just the flurry of everyone else going about their day can be distracting, and sometimes alone time doesn’t feel like alone time unless the whole neighborhood goes to sleep.
Reflecting a similar sentiment, Mictian Carax, a junior at Brooklyn College says “I prefer to write at night because I prefer solitude. I never feel a real sense of solitude in New York unless the world outside and the world contained within my apartment is still.” No matter how inconvenient it is, for some people, optimal mental clarity directly correlates with the stillness of the night. Fighting it might mean fighting an integral part of the way your brain functions, so maybe just keep doing what you do. The smug morning people will always exist. You and I probably won’t be awake to have to deal with them.
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