The Science Behind Being a Night Owl

Have you ever wondered why you’re a night owl or an early bird? According to a new study, it might not be something you have any control over. Rather, it’s something that’s happening on a cellular level — which means that it’s programmed into the very fiber of your being before you’re even born. Crazy, right? Here’s the science behind it:

Seth Blackshaw, an associate professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, recently authored a new study about the development of something in your brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SNC. What he found is your internal clock — that little thing that tells us when to eat, when to sleep, when to drink something, and so on — isn’t just in your brain. It’s all over your body. Basically, the SCN is kind of like the atomic clock, and every other cell in your body uses it to stay in sync.

It’s a little unfortunate that this piece of knowledge came at the expense of some lab mice, but Blackshaw did make some pretty remarkable discovers when the removed a key gene from his mice that helps the SCN communicate with other cells. Without that gene, the mice operated not on their normal 24-hour schedule, but rather as if they had as many as two or three internal clocks running at the same time. They could still function when it was light out, but if they were put in the dark… not so much.

For those who don’t speak science (like, for example, me), here’s how I understand it: Your body is an analog clock, and the SCN is the spring that keeps it running. When the clock is wound — that is, when the SCN is functioning normally — everything ticks along just as it should. When the spring starts to lose its tension — or, when the SCN isn’t working properly — then the clock runs down. It still ticks, but the time will be off.

What do these results mean in practice? Better treatments for sleep disorders, jetlag, and all kinds of other ailments. As the Atlantic points out, we know that messing around with your body clock feels bad; for example, people who work the graveyard shift always feel kind of gross because their bodies never fully adjust to keeping a nocturnal schedule. They also tend to have problems with high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes, and might even be at a higher risk of getting cancer or having a heart attack. I’m speculating here, but if we can figure out a way to resynchronize the SCN with all your body’s little cellular clocks, maybe issues like those terrifying microsleep blackouts we learned about the other day might not continue to be a problem. Who knows?

Until we fully crack the mysteries of the SCN, though, poor sleep will probably continue to be, in the words of the CDC, a public epidemic. To counteract it, you might consider putting into play one the many, many tips commonly recommended for getting the best rest you can. The Huffington Post ran a great article featuring 37 scientifically-supported sleep tips back during National Sleep Awareness Week; you might even try giving your sleep a little technological boost with a smartphone app or two. And hey, if you're a night owl, at least you're having more sex, right?