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Scientists Reveal Whether Early Birds or Night Owls Are Smarter


Bad luck, early birds: Science says that night owls may be smarter…on average.

Our bodies all run on an internal clock, which is dictated by both our genetics and our environment. And because of this unique combination of internal and external factors, our body clocks all run slightly differently. So, while some people tend to feel more awake first thing in the morning, others prefer a later start and later finish. You may have heard of this in the context of “early birds” and “night owls.”

The rigid schedule of a 9 to 5 tends to favor early birds, especially when it comes to getting enough shut-eye. But, when given the opportunity to get in their ZZZs, night owls might be cognitively sharper overall.

Chronotype
Some people are more productive in the morning, while other’s prefer to work late at night. A new study has examined sleep behavior versus cognitive ability.

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In a new study, published in the journal BMJ Public Health, researchers from Imperial College London examined sleep data from more than 26,000 individuals to explore the associations between their sleeping patterns and their cognitive abilities. The data was drawn from UK Biobank, a biomedical database investigating the respective contributions of genetics and environment to the development of various diseases.

Across all participants, sleeping for seven to nine hours per night was optimum for cognitive function, including tests for memory, reasoning and information processing. Sleeping for less than seven or more than nine hours had clear detrimental effects on brain function across participants. But that’s not all.

The researchers also found that an individual’s preference for evening or morning activity—also known as their chronotype—strongly correlated with their test scores. In particular, night owls consistently performed better in cognitive tests than early birds, while those with intermediate chronotypes performed somewhere in between the two.

These results held true after other health and lifestyle factors, like age, gender, chronic disease and smoking and alcohol consumption were accounted for.

“Our study found that adults who are naturally more active in the evening (what we called ‘eveningness’) tended to perform better on cognitive tests than those who are ‘morning people.'” The study’s lead author, Raha West, from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London, said in a statement. “Rather than just being personal preferences, these chronotypes could impact our cognitive function.”

These findings add to previous studies showing a link between high academic achievement among early birds but higher cognitive abilities among night owls. However, these associations do not definitely prove that all night owls are smarter than early birds.

“It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean all morning people have worse cognitive performance,” West said. “The findings reflect an overall trend where the majority might lean towards better cognition in the evening types.”

The researchers also emphasize the importance of their findings about sleep duration more generally and its impact on cognitive performance. “We’ve found that sleep duration has a direct effect on brain function, and we believe that proactively managing sleep patterns is really important for boosting, and safeguarding, the way our brains work,” co-study leader Daqing Ma, a professor at Imperial’s Department of Surgery and Cancer, said in a statement.

“We’d ideally like to see policy interventions to help sleep patterns improve in the general population.”

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