Most of us know whether we're an early bird or a night owl; whether we like waking up bright and early, or prefer sleeping in 'til noon. Morning people work more efficiently during the day, while night people hit their “prime time” burning the midnight oil. Now, a new study in Experimental Brain Research suggests early risers who work the night shift may be jeopardizing their productivity.

Working hours are consistently increasing in certain jobs where people face sleep restriction. Sleep deprivation impairs attention and working memory, also affecting other functions, such as long-term memory and decision-making. Although sleep deprivation is becoming commonplace in society, its effect on cognitive performance are only beginning to unravel from a scientific perspective.

Read More: What Your Sleep Schedule May Say About Your Health

Researchers Nicola Barclay and Andriy Myachykov from the Higher School of Economics and Oxford University sought to investigate the influence of sleep deprivation on people with different chronotypes. They wanted to focus on how an increase in time spent awake affects the attention system of early risers and night owls.

At night, early birds demonstrated a quicker reaction time than night owls, when solving unusual attention-related tasks on the Attention Network Test (ANT) and a Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire to help assess their chronotype. The researcher suspect this could be due to the different approaches the two groups took towards managing the task. Although early birds finished faster, they made more mistakes, and showed a decrease in concentration. Night owls were more likely to take a serious approach when it came to tasks requiring more time and attention during the late evening or at night.

"An interesting fact is that although night owls spent more time finishing than early birds, their accuracy in completing the task was higher,” said Andriy Myachykov, co-author of the study, in a statement.

Night owls were more likely to sacrifice speed for accuracy, unlike their counterparts.

The researchers did not find any significant differences between the results of the ANT test the early birds and night owls completed in the morning.

Pouring coffee The neuroscience behind why morning people struggle to work the night shift. Photo courtesy of Pexels, Public Domain

A total of 26 volunteers (13 male, 13 female) with an average age of 25 were recruited for the study. Participants were required to stay awake for 18 hours, from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., and follow their normal routine. The ANT test was completed at the beginning and end of their time spent awake.

Overall, the evening people turned out to be slower but more efficient compared to the early risers, according to the second ANT taken at 2:00 a.m. after 18 hours of being awake.

"On the one hand, it's known that night owls are more efficient in the late hours, but how this influences the speed and accuracy with which attention-related tasks are completed remains unclear," said Myachykov.

Read More: 7 Little-Known Facts About Night Owls

Night owls are known to remain mentally alert for a much longer period of time after waking, than their early bird counterparts. A 2009 study in Science found ten hours after waking, early birds showed reduced activity in brain areas linked to attention compared to night owls. They showed less activity in a region deep in the brain that’s suspected to be involved in the circadian master clock, which regulates our daily cycles of alertness.

Night owls also show an increase in motor cortex and spinal cord excitability in the late evening hours. This means they have maximal central nervous system drive at this time. However, for morning people, they never achieve this level of  central nervous system drive because the excitability of the motor cortex does not coincide with the excitability of the spinal cord. In other words, these two measures never peak at the same time, which could put early birds at a disadvantage when it comes to physiological processes.

Moreover, night owls have an easier time adapting to an early work schedule and being productive. In the book Sleepfaring: A Journey Through the Science of Sleep, author James Horne explains early risers have a more difficult adapting their sleep schedule to that of a night owl. This is why morning people are more prone to making mistakes in the evening, especially if they work the night shift.

This compilation of research could challenge the education and human resources management in certain areas. Perhaps several students and employees could benefit from hours that are more suitable to their chronotype. Until then, we shouldn’t fight our genes, but rather, learn to be adaptive whether we’re early birds or night owls.

Source: Barclay N and Myachykov A. Sustained wakefulness and visual attention: moderation by chronotype. Experimental Brain Research. 2016.

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