In defense of late sleepers | Pakistan Today

In defense of late sleepers

  • Your biological clock is not obligated to meet societal expectations

Consider, for a moment, that you did not live in a world where you had to wake up to alarm clocks because of work or significant social events. In this hypothetical place, sleep is not a conscious choice, and its timings are determined by your work schedule. You go to bed whenever your body tells you to go to bed, and wake up in the same way.

What determines your sleep-wake cycle? We assume that it’s the sun. This is true in most cases, but that’s an overly simplistic answer. Many early risers, particularly those who perform Fajr prayers regularly, are accustomed to waking up before the first ray of sun penetrates your window. And most of us tend to not only stay awake long after the sun sets around 6:00 pm, but tend to remain fairly active until around midnight.

What truly regulates your sleep-wake cycle is your internal clock, or circadian rhythm. In the absence of conscious adjustments to your sleep schedule, every person has a different ‘factory setting’ determining when your eyes naturally start to feel heavy.

There appears to be good evolutionary reason why we have these settings. A few hundred thousand years ago or so, it made sense for humans to have an internal clock that’s synchronised with the sun cycle. There’s little point remaining awake in a light-less world where one’s visual senses become nearly useless, and productivity drops significantly. It was understandably more useful to remain awake during the day and get some rest at night.

At the same time, it must have been important to have at least a minority of humans whose internal clocks work the opposite way; Surely they needed some members of the tribe to stay vigilant at night and be on the lookout for beastly and elemental forces threatening their tribes. Any human tribe lacking members with the capacity to remain fully alert at night, probably did not survive natural selection.

Most people tend to wake up naturally in the morning and go to sleep at night. This tendency has led to the development of global systems that are functional around daytime and shut down at night. Even more frustratingly perhaps, the majority has transformed their natural tendencies into a special virtue. “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” is a proverb penned long ago by people who were still swallowing mercury as medicine, and bleeding patients half to death to get rid of ‘bad blood’.

It’s conventional wisdom that rising early is good for you. What’s usually left unaddressed is that it’s because our systems favour those who get up at 8:00 am in the morning

The proverb is only half true. While studies do indicate that late sleepers, or “night owls”, are at greater risk of morbidity and death; with life expectancy of nearly 10pc less than those who wake up early. This, however, has little to do with the inherent virtuousness of waking up early; but the fact that our systems are designed to favour early risers.

What happens then to nearly 20pc of us whose internal clocks are not synchronised with our work systems? These are usually the ones who force themselves to sleep at night, at times with help of sleeping pills, and hit the ‘snooze’ button six times in the morning before waking up feeling utterly miserable.

It’s conventional wisdom that rising early is good for you. What’s usually left unaddressed is that it’s because our systems favour those who get up at 8:00 am in the morning. They are the ones who get the first pick at fresh produce at the farmers’ market and get the bulk of their work completed during relatively cooler hours of the day. Those with a natural tendency to get out of bed in the afternoon, receive none of those rewards.

What we’re witnessing is essentially a form of utilitarian tyranny; consistently ignoring the needs of the few to maximise benefits for the majority. The descendants of all-important night owls, who once ensured the safety of their tribes during hours of darkness, now find themselves at a tragic disadvantage.

Perhaps the world is too big to change quickly. For the foreseeable future, one can think of no alternative except to facilitate these night owls in finding jobs better suited to their internal clocks. In the meantime, the least early-risers can do is spare us their sermons on how virtuous it is to wake up at sunrise. Perhaps we can undo some damage simply by acknowledging that the world we’ve built is not perfectly suited to everyone’s biological needs; and that some of us are struggling to assimilate with the majority. That might be a good place to start.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat is a medical doctor from Rawalpindi and an ardent traveller who writes frequently about science, social politics and international relations.