Body, Health
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Night Owl: On Keeping a Teenager’s Schedule in This Grown-Up Life

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(Photo: Stuart Richards/flickr.com)

JULIET: Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yonder pomegranate-tree:
Believe me, my love, it was the nightingale.

ROMEO: It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale: look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east:
Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.

Act III, Scene V is one of the loveliest parts of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: For one thing, the teen lovers are awakening after their first and only night as a married couple, after their sexy secret wedding in Friar Laurence’s cell. For another, they make arguing about whether or not it’s time to get up sound desperately romantic. It’s romantic to sleep in, everyone! Or so I argue, anyway. I’ve been a night owl for 36 years and counting.

[pullquote]I try to float into our bedroom after midnight like a ninja in a soap bubble, but my sweet, coffee-making, daywalker husband wakes up each and every time.[/pullquote]

As a little girl, I was always the last one to start snoring at sleepovers. As a college student, I’d park myself on a bench in the garden behind my shared house and chat with whoever happened by until the sun came up. I figured my nocturnal tendencies would fade into something sunnier once real-life responsibilities forced me to adhere to a more mainstream schedule. I expected some sort of physical change, too: at my grown-up, had-to-set-a-very-aggressive-alarm-to-get-there-on-time magazine job, I worked on umpteen health articles which asserted that as we get older, we tend to need less sleep. (When I called my mother every day this January, no hour was too early: she almost always got up before I did, despite the three hours’ time difference between me in New York City and her in California.) Clearly I would become the sort of woman who springs up like a daisy in the morning, no matter when I’d turned in the previous night.

Though I developed the habit of getting out of bed early(ish) for work, I never did figure out how to rise and shine. I also failed to developed the inclination or willpower needed to turn out my reading light at an appropriate hour of the night; I’d just make up for lost sleep over the weekend. Now that I’m a freelancer and can keep my own schedule, there’s no incentive to turn in early: even after burning the midnight oil and waking up at an hour at which most people are walking into their offices, I can roll out of bed and straight to the inbox on my laptop. My ‘commute’ is the five minutes it takes to pour a cup of the coffee my husband made before he left for work, hours earlier. With freedom like this, I can let my night-owl freak flag fly, society’s standards be damned, at last! Fantastic, no?

That all depends on what you believe about night owls. In cruising around the Internet in search of evidence that I will or won’t die an early death because of my fondness for the wee hours, I found characterizations of diurnal and nocturnal people that sounded even wilder than some of the stuff I’ve read over the years about left- and right-handed people.

Night Owls Are Super Smart: According to the controversial evolutionary biologist Satoshi Kanazawa, “very bright” (with an IQ of 125 or higher) children tend to go to sleep almost an hour later than “very dull” (with an IQ of 75 or lower) children (Kanazawa presented his findings in a piece entitled “Why Night Owls Are More Intelligent,” in case his leanings were unclear). Excellent news!

Night Owls Are Darth Vader: At the other end of the spectrum, Australian researchers revealed in 2013 (in a study called “Creatures of the Night,” speaking of clear leanings) that night owls are more likely to display signs of what they call the “Dark Triad” of personality traits — that is, secondary psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and exploitive narcissism. As the team’s leader posited, “[i]t could be adaptively effective for anyone pursuing a fast life strategy like that embodied in the Dark Triad to occupy and exploit a lowlight environment where others are sleeping and have diminished cognitive functioning.” Oh, dear: I could be a monster (Stalin and Hitler were both night owls, and poster children for the Dark Triad).

In truth, I’m incapable of moving through the world with anything resembling stealth. I try to float into our bedroom after midnight like a ninja in a soap bubble, but my sweet, coffee-making, daywalker husband wakes up each and every time. My sleep disorder — for, as CNN’s sleep expert Lisa Shives notes, preferring to stay up late is evidence of delayed phase sleep disorder, a condition often accompanied by nasty outcomes like insomnia and plummeting productivity — is a problem for him as well, since he can’t enjoy uninterrupted rest. As with poor, doomed Romeo, is it fatal for him to stay in his lady’s bed?

Dr. Shives doesn’t seem to think so: she reports without resentment that her own husband is a night owl, the sort who “return[s] to [his] nocturnal ways every chance [he gets].”

Shelby Harris, Psy.D. (director of Behavioral Sleep Medicine at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center here in New York) was similarly reassuring when I turned to her: “It is only considered a delayed sleep phase disorder if it is creating problems in your functioning (e.g. can’t get to school or work on time),” said Harris. “However, if you have a job or school schedule that allows you to sleep those hours and doesn’t interfere with your life, you have a delayed sleep phase, but it isn’t a disorder requiring treatment.”

Perhaps a dance class or two could lend me the grace to creep around in the wee hours without interfering with my partner’s life. Dr. Harris also brought me back to earth on those wild claims that night owls are evil geniuses: “I don’t think there’s really enough data on this yet to make any broad generalizations.”

We can, however, look at how men and women have approached sleep over the centuries. Historians have traced patterns of segmented sleeping — that is, turning in two hours after dusk, waking up for an hour or two in the middle of the night, and then returning to bed for a “second sleep” — all the way back to Homer’s Greece. That period of wakefulness was used for anything from prayer and solitary contemplation to visiting neighbors or having sex — all of which sound wholesome to me. The artificial light of the Industrial Revolution introduced us to extended work hours and the miseries that can accompany them, but that doesn’t mean everything that happens after agrarian types are abed is unnatural. What if we’re actually at our best in the moonlight?

I’ve started setting my alarm so that I can kiss Joe goodbye before he leaves in the morning; I’m a bit groggy for it, sure, but it’s nice to start the day with company. This Valentine’s Day, he joined me at our favorite theater for a midnight movie: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the story of a young man and a lady vampire. I think we’re going to be alright.

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