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Night Owls and Morning Larks Need Different Schedules

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Cognitive performance varies not only from day to day, but from hour to hour. Some people’s brains peak in the morning (“larks”), while others are sharpest at night (“owls”). This trait is called “chronotype”—people with different chronotypes have different peak times of day.

A new study examined chronotypes in adolescents, and came to some surprising conclusions.

If people were free to learn, work, and sleep whenever they wanted to, perhaps larks would be no different than owls. They’d just choose to do their most intellectually demanding activities at different times. However, in reality there are social pressures that reduce freedom. Children in school have it especially bad—school always starts early in the morning, with classes scheduled at specific times. Tough luck, owls.

The new study, published in Scientific Reports, found that school-aged children with owl-like chronotypes, as you would probably guess, do worse in school overall. One less obvious result was that this can’t be explained by sleep alone. Owls may not be staying up late (even if they want to), but they’re still impaired in the morning.

An even more interesting result came when looking at performance in each school subject:


Here, a later chronotype indicates a later peak in cognitive performance (i.e. more of an owl). For scientific subjects, the more owl-like a student, the worse their grades. However, for humanities, chronotype did not make much of a difference.

Maybe this result leaves hope for owls later in life, when they have at least some control over their schedules. More number-based, analytical, reasoning-heavy tasks can be scheduled closer to peak performance time, while more language-based tasks can be performed any time.

Want to discover your own chronotype? BrainLabs can help. If you’ve already been collecting brain performance data, check for patterns in the time of day when you’re at your best. And pay attention to each cognitive domain, too—there may be different patterns for reasoning, short-term memory, and verbal ability. Use this information to time tasks for when you’re going to excel at them.

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Read the full paper (Zerbini et al., 2017) here.
This post was written by Mike Battista, a staff scientist at Cambridge Brain Sciences.

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