Morning person or not, Michael O’Sullivan investigates why it is so tough for some to make it in for 9am
The alarm goes off. You roll out of bed like Jabba the Hut in a heat wave and slap the alarm clock until it stops blaring its satanic squawking at you. You then sit in a heap on your bed/floor/bin/park bench and contemplate the difficulty of your life while scratching yourself and blinking the crust off your eyes.
Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re the kind of person who hops out of bed as fresh as a daisy. With birds tweeting sweet nothings while floating on the sunbeams sneaking through the crack in your curtains, lighting up your face. Then butterflies dress you while you sing about rainbows and rub your pet unicorn behind the ears.
We’ve all met them before. Morning people and not-morning people are pretty easy to pick out from a crowd. It’s a pretty commonly known fact that some people love the early morning chill and some people prefer to stay up all night and refuse to get out of bed the next morning.
The dishevelled hair, bleary eyes and smell of three days without a shower characterises those who don’t like mornings, while fresh faces, immaculate hairdos, fantastic outfits and annoying peppiness are the overwhelming traits of those who do. For the purposes of this article we shall refer to the early risers as Larks and the nocturnal populace as Owls.
A lot of people fall into one or the other category. In fact, 30% of people are either Larks or Owls, with the rest of us just being normal people who sit somewhere in between the two.
What makes a person more oriented to being a Lark or an Owl? The zoologists among you may say wing structure, cranial structure and diet. This would be correct, but also an obnoxious display of “look at me, I know stuff,” so we shall ignore the interjection completely.
Also should a person begin swooping about and consuming a collection of snails and small rodents for lunch, the psychiatric team would be called in, and so we shy away from the zoological end of things entirely.
Based on commonly accepted views, Larks are stereotyped as being super perky and upbeat, while Owls are characterised as rather morbid and antisocial. Scientists have recently shown that Owls and Larks actually have structural differences within their brains that make them the way they are, as opposed to simply being overly lazy or infuriatingly on top of things.
Jessica Rosenberg at RWTH Aachen University in Germany recently ran a study where she observed Larks, Owls and normal folk through brain scans. She then compared the structures of said brains to try and discover the reasons why some people have sleep patterns that differ so greatly from those of others.
The results were startling to say the least. She discovered that Owls have a reduction in integrity in white matter in their brains. White matter is fatty tissue that helps speed up the neural transmission process, essentially allowing our brains to process information a lot faster.
This doesn’t mean that Owls have a reduced mental capacity, far from it actually. Their brains function perfectly normally and well under average everyday conditions. When those conditions change, however, things get a bit murky.
She discovered that the white matter reduction was localised to certain areas of the brain. These areas have numerous functions, but are quite active in mental health and general wellbeing.
This may go a long way to explaining why Owls tend to consume greater amounts of cigarettes and alcohol and complain of tiredness during the day. The symptoms have been compared to chronic jet lag. They also have an increased risk of suffering from depression, which may be the source of the initial stereotype.
It’s not all bad, though. There is also evidence that suggests rewiring of the brain is possible. By going to bed earlier and forcing yourself to rise earlier, it may be possible to train yourself into becoming a Lark. Or even simply minimising your exposure to artificial lighting and getting more direct sunlight can have a positive effect.
As students we live a life that is dominated by the mantra “work hard, play hard”. The combination of continuous assessment and party lifestyle are hardly conducive to behaviour characteristic of early risers. Nor does it help that long hours spent in the library result in a lack of sunlight exposure so severe that skin becomes almost transparent to the point that campus security receive numerous reports of Nosferatu around Christmas time.
In fact it could be argued that the student lifestyle clashes directly with Lark-like behaviour, which has now been shown to be the healthier alternative. With mental health disorders on the rise, maybe we need to rethink our attitudes to college life and learn that sometimes partying four nights of the week is neither healthy nor sane, and would require a bank loan with the cost of drinks in Dublin.
And there you have it. Next time you sleep in and miss an important tutorial, simply explain to your lecturer that you are an Owl and as such your brain is wired differently to most.
If they would be so kind as to provide you with a section of the roof of Newman on which to sunbathe, you could rewire your brain and arrive on time. Apparently the School of English has a great view of the college pitches. Try there.