"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Are You A Lark Or An Owl?

I know very few people who absolutely love to pop out of bed at 4am and get cracking.  I can’t wait for the waking hour to roll around; and unlike most people I do not look at the clock to see how much more sleep I can get – I check to see when it is a reasonable hour to get up. 

I love the early morning.  It is perfectly quiet, I am alone, and I can work, read, walk without anything or anyone disturbing my world.  I love seeing the first light, hearing the first birds, and feel the first breeze.  

I have always been this way.  My mother often reminded me that I was no different as a child.  I could never stay in bed and was always up before anyone else.  “You didn’t want to miss a minute of the day”, she said. 

I found in India a whole country that was on my circadian rhythm.  When I got up to practice the sitar on the barsati in the cool of the very early morning, I could see lights go on in the neighboring houses.  After practice when it was just beginning to get light, I walked in the gardens of Humayun’s Tomb, across the street from my house in Nizamuddin East.  The morning constitutional was not a dutiful, silent affair.  Everyone on the garden paths was awake, in a good mood, chatting with companions or just enjoying the morning.  The gardens were always fresh and fragrant, especially in the first days of the monsoon and in the fall when new flowers were planted.  Green parrots lived in the old walls around the tomb and began to screech and dart just before the sun came up. 

In Hindu culture, the early morning is the holiest time of day, one designated for ritual ablution and the cleansing of the bad vapors, fluids, and mists that settled in the worst depths of night.  It was the time of day for prayer and preparation for the day; and finally it was the time for socializing before the duties of the householder began.  Work never began before 10 after the best six hours of the day were already spent.  I loved those mornings in India and my memories always first turn to the barsati, the green parrots on Humayun’s wall, and the walks in the garden.

One of the few people I knew who is always as wide awake and eager to travel as I is my California cousin.  When I visit, she and I take a 5-mile walk every morning on the Manhattan Beach boardwalk, talking about everything from our mothers to Kant and Nietzsche. We are often joined by a number of her friends who, in that first, fresh, salty Pacific morning are as animated and eager as we.

My children when they were younger were just the opposite.  They loved the night, and often came in just as I was getting up.  They loved the anticipation, the excitement, the adventure of nightlife – the clubs, raves, scenes of DC in the mid-90s.  I always assumed that this was an adolescent phase which would end as they got older and matured into a more normal routine – perhaps not as exaggeratedly so as I, but up and down like most people.  The work routine softened the edges a bit, and both of them made the transition to a 9-5, but the weekends are still exorbitant all-nighters even in their mid-thirties.  

“The morning is better than the night”, I once remarked.

“You’re prejudiced against the night”, they replied; and they were right.  There was no way that the dark, colorless, black-and-grey, still, quiet, and energy-less night could be better than the morning.

On World Bank missions, the Team Leader would always arrange after-dinner work sessions which would often go until 10pm.  I hated them and was obstinate, irritable and difficult.  I suggested to him that for fairness’ sake he should call every other meeting at 6am.  He of course, exhibiting the same day-night prejudice that I admitted to, refused.  The idea of working two hours tacked on to the normal day was unacceptable. 

When I had an office job (rarely), I would always do my best and most productive work between 4-9am.  With no one to bother me, no phones, emails, office pop-ins I could get an incredible amount done.  Everyone was happy with this arrangement.  I would have all papers, reports, and reviews done for everyone when they came in.  I could call Bangladesh and India at a reasonable hour.  I could leave the office early and have the rest of the afternoon to walk, relax, and cook.

Everyone gave me credit for doing more work than anyone else, for all my early work was on their desks by 9, and I continued to work at the office during the day.  My co-workers or bosses didn’t realize that with the early-morning quiet plus my natural discipline, focus, and tunnel vision I produced more work in those hours than most people did in twice the time; nor did they realize that when I left the office at 3 (to work at home), I did nothing until 4am the next day. I in fact worked fewer hours than anyone else.

As I get older, my preference for the early morning has become even more pronounced.  I sleep far less, get up even earlier, and work even harder.  My childhood impatience has become a older man’s urgency – not a minute to lose.

I have always known that there are day people and night people but thought that those of us who like the morning were in the vast minority.  An article in today’s (8.8.12) BBC News Online http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120806-are-you-a-lark-or-an-owl reports that only 20 percent of people are confirmed day or night people, while the other 80 percent go either way. The twenty percent is equally divided between ‘confirmed or moderate’ early-risers and night owls.  I can only conclude that the number of absolute morning people is well under ten percent.  Most importantly, the difference is genetic:

Researchers at Surrey University in the UK have found that your chronotype is to a large extent genetic. They have found that people who are extreme larks or owls have certain variations, or polymorphisms, in their circadian clock genes.

Although the day-night preference may be genetic and the distribution is fairly equal, nature has made it more difficult for night owls:

Larks have the highest body temperature in the middle of the afternoon while for owls the peak comes several hours later. First thing in the morning the lucky larks experience a massive spike in the stress hormone cortisol, like having a huge dose of drug which helps the body deal with the shock of moving from sleep to wakefulness. The unfortunate evening types have to wait until later for the same chemical boost.

To this combination of genetic and chemical factors is added the structure of the ‘normal’ work day:

That’s little consolation for those owls around the world who have to exist in a society organised around the larks. Schools and work often start very early, and there’s a sense of virtuosity in getting up early, while the owls are simply lazy. One early riser admitted to me that if he is staying in a house full of people he loves to be the first one up so he can relish the feeling that everyone is lazy.

‘Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise’ was the adage I was brought up by.  Not only was I genetically predisposed to getting up early and got a natural boost later in the day, I was raised to believe that sleeping late and lolling around in bed was lazy and unhealthy.  Talk about a powerful cocktail to condition my day, this was it.

The only surprise in all this is that 20 percent of the population are night owls.  With this genetic and chemical disposition and human evolution (sleeping when it was dark made sense when there were no lights and wild animals), larks should be predominant. 

It is interesting to speculate what the distribution will look like when we eventually can reconfigure our DNA and choose our sleeping patterns.  I can imagine not only retooling the wake-sleep cycle sub-strands, but the sleep strand itself – that is, engineering the need for sleep out of the human equation.  Maybe we will be able to plug in at ‘refresher stations’ and never have to sleep.  We will live in domed cities with both direct and reflected natural sunlight, and it will always be day.  Or even better yet, we will all live in a virtual world in which we can create our own circadian patterns.  I would extend the early morning, have it paced more slowly, and let it last longer; and if, in the unlikely event that I wanted to see the night sky, I could arrange that virtually.

I think I am trying to go without sleep, since I sleep less and less and am up more and more; but I am just getting the most electrical charge out of the circuits given to me by my parents.

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