Cognitive function of night owls ‘superior’ to early birds, study suggests | Neuroscience

The idea that night owls who don’t go to bed until the early hours of the morning have trouble getting anything done during the day may need to be rethought.

It turns out that staying up late is good for our brains, with research showing that people who consider themselves night owls can be sharper than those who go to bed early.

Researchers led by academics from Imperial College London examined data from the UK Biobank study of more than 26,000 people who had undergone tests of intelligence, reasoning, reaction time and memory.

They then examined how the duration and quality of participants’ sleep and their chronotype (which determines what time of day we feel most alert and productive) affected brain performance.

They found that those who stayed up late and those classified as “intermediate” had “superior cognitive function,” while morning people had the lowest scores.

Late bedtime is strongly associated with creative types. Artists, writers and musicians who are known to be night owls include Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, James Joyce, Kanye West and Lady Gaga.

Politicians like Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill and Barack Obama seemed to thrive on little sleep, but the study found that sleep duration matters for brain function. People who sleep seven to nine hours a night perform best on cognitive tests.

Dr Raha West, lead author and clinical researcher at the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London, said: “While it is essential to understand and work with your natural sleep tendencies, it is equally important to remember to get just enough sleep, not too long or too short. This is crucial to keeping your brain healthy and functioning optimally.”

Prof Daqing Ma, co-leader of the study and also from Imperial’s Department of Surgery and Cancer, added: “We found that sleep duration has a direct effect on brain function. We believe that proactively managing sleep patterns is very important to boost and protect our brain function.

“Ideally, we would like to see policy interventions to improve sleep patterns in the general population.”

But some experts urged caution in interpreting the findings. Jacqui Hanley, head of research funding at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “Without a detailed picture of what’s happening in the brain, we don’t know whether being a ‘morning’ or ‘evening’ person affects memory and thinking, or whether a decline in cognition causes changes in sleep patterns.”

Jessica Chelekis, Associate Professor in sustainability global value chains and sleep expert at Brunel University London, said there were “key limitations” to the study because the research did not take into account education level, or the time of day the cognitive tests were performed in the results. The main value of the study was in challenging stereotypes around sleep, she added.

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