When you’re asleep, they’re in their prime. The case for rethinking night owls
Once upon a time, I was thrilled to stay up late. When my parents hosted parties, I’d camouflage myself into the walls and relish each illicit minute I got to stay up past bedtime. All the magic seems to happen at night when you’re a kid. As soon as you close your eyes, Santa Claus is riding his reindeers and your stuffed animals come alive. Eventually my parents would notice me standing in the corner and the party would be over, for me anyway. Lying in bed, I would fall asleep to the sound of voices in the next room and dream up amazing things I would see and do when I could stay up late.
My childhood self would be disappointed by how little late-night gallivanting I do today. I fall asleep sometime after midnight and wake up sometime before nine. Addicted to coffee, dragging myself to my desk; there never seem to be enough hours in the day until it’s night again. Even though I’m unconscious for most of it —or perhaps because of that—the night hours still hold mystery for me.
Unique and beautiful chronotypes
Humans are naturally a diurnal species, meaning that we conduct our business during the day. But more people than you might think chafe against the 9-to-5 schedule. Sleep research has advanced to a stage where we know that every person has a distinct chronotype, the scientific term for an individual’s circadian rhythms.
Chronotypes are complex concoctions mixed with genetics, age, geography, and external factors like the demands of one’s job or the sleeping routine of a partner. Approximately 25 per cent of the population consists of night people, 15 per cent identifies as morning people, and the rest fall somewhere in between.
About two-thirds of the population suffer from “social jet lag,” a term coined by chronobiologist Till Roenneberg for that perpetual fatigue we feel when our internal clocks clash with the duties of our day.
Agricultural traditions in times of Tinder
In preindustrial times, working during the daytime made sense. It is just so much easier to dig up potatoes when you can see what you’re doing. Sayings like “the early bird gets the worm” and “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” reinforced the idea that sleeping in was lazy, if not economically ruinous. Early-morning proverbs surface in almost every culture; in Russia, they gather mushrooms early, in Italy, fish.
In industrialized societies, many jobs can be done anytime and anywhere, so long as there’s a a wifi connection and a laptop. Yet we continue to follow a brighter-is-better routine. Twice a year, the clocks spring forward and back to take advantage of the sunlight.
An hour’s difference might not seem like much, but the day after Daylight Savings Time has become one of the most dangerous for workplace injuries. Car accidents rise as well. And it’s late chronotypes who feel the full brunt of Daylight Savings Time. Weeks after the shift they continue to play catch-up with their sleep.
Why do we still practice this outdated agricultural tradition?
In fact, Daylight Savings Time does not come from farming. Its origins date back to the First World War when the Germans needed more sunlight to conserve fuel.
Depraved by the bell
There are other ways in which long-established schedules reward early risers. The school day, for instance, typically runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., even though teenagers tend to be late chronotypes.
Before adolescence, kids need a lot of sleep, but as they enter high school they stay up later and sleep in longer. This is often dismissed as lazy teenage behaviour, but more likely they’re just exhausted from a schedule that doesn’t take their sleeping patterns into account.
A 2008 study found that when high school started just one hour later, the amount of kids getting a full-night’s rest rose by 15 per cent. Again, that extra hour of sleep might not seem like much, but high school grades go on to determine who gets a scholarship or admitted to an elite university. Before leaving high school, the odds are already stacked against late chronotypes.
Why you’re so tired
It seems strange to live in a society that places a premium on productivity, yet runs according to an outdated one-size-fits-all schedule. Wouldn’t it make more sense to work during the hours we’re most alert?
We can feel when that window opens and we suddenly enter “the zone,” churning out work we’ve neglected all day.
In some parts of the world, this is starting to be recognized. In Denmark,for instance, where morning people are referred to as “A People” and evening people as “B People,” night owls have started to organize for less restrictive schedules. Companies can get “B-certified,” meaning they’re friendly to night owl schedules. Famous early risers, such as Steve Jobs, seem to confirm the rule that morning people are simply better, more productive members of the society.
Chronobiologist Till Roenneberg writes about this prejudice in Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Leg and Why You’re So Tired (Harvard University Press):
“Owls are at best, extroverted artists and intellectuals, or at worst, people who engage in dark arts and exert evil powers.”
But some argue that it’s night owls who might have the jump on early birds. The evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa at the London School of Economics has found evidence that night owls have higher IQs than other sleepers. His theory is that night owls have an evolutionary advantage because they can choose to override the natural daytime setting of humans.
The creative potential of near-sleep
At night, our thoughts do tend to get a little looser, less linear, more associative. A leap that looked impossible during the day moves within reach at night.
The short documentary Petit Heures captures the everyday beauty of Montreal shuttering down for the night. The streets are empty, the neon glows off the black pavement, there is an eerie, hard-to-define beauty to the night.
“There are things we can’t see during the day,” the narrator tells the camera, “things we never see, that we could see at night, but we miss them because we’re asleep.”
A late-night host at UBC’s student radio station CiTR echoes that sentiment. “There is a completely different energy at four in the morning when all the normals are asleep,” Vampyra Draculea tells me. For the last 10 years, Draculea has run her show Vampire’s Ball from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. every Thursday. “For songwriting anyway, the best ideas come when I’m almost half asleep. At 5 a.m., I’m trying to go to bed and I’m thinking of a chorus. So, I get up and bang out the lyrics.”
Many creative types, from Franz Kafka to Marcel Proust to Glenn Gould, worked best during the evening. Others, such asthe legendary early riser Haruki Murakami, wake so early they may as well be night owls.
The American author Nicholson Baker wakes at half past four, fueling his first writing session with hazy, near-sleep thoughts. He returns to bed for a nap and then rises again, for a second jolt of creative power.
While the world sleeps, say anything
Despite the lower listener numbers during the evening, late-night radio hosts like Vampyra Draculea tend to stick around longer than the daytime disc jockeys. “That’s the nice thing with college radio,” she says as she waits in the CiTR lounge for her show to begin. “There are these late-hour spots where I can rule the roost cause there’s not too many people who want to take them off my hands.”
Draculea, who is 36, has a florid Scottish complexion and many phantom holes in her ears and nose from where piercings used to live. She wakes in the early afternoon and goes to sleep sometime around four
or five in the morning. She likes to arrive at CiTR hours before her show begins because the security guards tend to lock the building early. On more than one occasion, Draculea has found herself (or her guests) locked out. As she waits in CiTR’s rumpled lounge for her spot to begin, the talk radio show Sex in Van City, hosted by
a buxom lady who signs off with a kiss to the microphone, comes over the speakers. From 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. is the Hans Von Kloss Misery Hour, run by a disgruntled man from Poland who likes to rant about
how much he hates Vancouver in between musical sets dominated by the Tea Party.
Late-night hosts enjoy looser rules about Canadian Content requirements and they also have the creative freedom of safe-harbour hours: that special window between 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. when children are asleep and adults can say pretty much whatever the fuck they want. And do.
Lighting ourselves awake
Von Kloss likes the DJ booth lit to a moody hue, the only light source a lamp with an upturned shade perched on top. When Draculea moves into the booth, she immediately flicks the overhead light on to buzzing fluorescence. “I’m legally blind,” she says. “I have the strongest contacts I can get and I need all the light I can get.”
The lightbulb is one of the inventions most responsible for humans shifting toward later sleeping patterns. Some estimates say that, since Edison patented the bulb back in 1878, the average person gets three hours less sleep per day.
Artificial light permeates modern life: the soupy orange cast of streetlights, the flat glow of a computer screen, the blunt fluorescent tubes of a cubicle office. A well- lit room averages only a couple hundred Lux (the measurement for light intensity).
A cloudy day can get up to 10,000 Lux and a sunny one can reach 150,000 Lux. And it’s not just the lack of sunlight that affects us—it’s the lack of total darkness, too. Not matter how tightly shuttered our windows, light seeps around the edges, through blinds and around curtains.
The average Canadian spends approximately 90 per cent of her life indoors. We forget how pervasive this weak light is until we emerge from a building, blinking in the sunlight, or throw our heads back to a jet-black country sky.
The effect is so strong that in towns with a population under 300,000, where the sky is darker from less light pollution, people tend to rise earlier than in cities.
The night is ours
The clock in the DJ booth reads 2:07 a.m. Just over an hour into Vampire’s Ball, and Draculea shows no fatigue. If anything, she seems to be waking up: her thoughts are flightier, the memories come back quicker. I am sunk down in my seat, losing my train of thought, worried about how I’m going to drive home when I’m half asleep.“Can you tell I’m fading?” I ask Draculea. “Yeah,” she laughs.Before I leave, I try to get Draculea to expound on the special sides of living and working at night. Does she get any regular late-night callers? When the clouds are just right, CiTR’s radio signal can bounce all the way to Washington.
A bartender from Everett used to call Pyra after he got off work, requesting a song for his drive home. But the encounter didn’t strike Pyra as romantic or interesting.
“Sometimes you get someone socially isolated who wants to talk your ear off about whatever,” she says. This month, Draculea will stop broadcasting on CiTR, but she’ll continue to podcast her comedy shows and work on the electro music she makes under the moniker maQlu. Draculea’s lack of interest in her nighttime ways shouldn’t surprise me. I don’t greet people on the street with a merry isn’t-it-all-great-we’re-awake-in-the-day hello. But still, there is some fundamental difference about lives lived at night.
If anything, getting around the city is easier: traffic jams don’t exist, the world has a more meditative, gliding quality. Of course there are difficulties, too.
On my way out of CiTR, a security guard stops me. “How did you get in here?” he asks suspiciously, “I locked all the doors hours ago.”
Vampyra Draculea’s nighttime activities can be found on http://pyradraculea.com