Bob Dylan, Leonardo da Vinci, Keith Richards, and James Joyce have several things in common: talent, ingenuity, everlasting fame. But there’s one more thread connecting these creative legends, and it’s arguably the most interesting of all.
Every one of them is, or was, a night owl.
It’s hard not to be fascinated by people who come alive at the end of the day, right when so many others are happily snuggling down in bed. What determines our preference for either the owl or the “lark” daytime life? Is one lifestyle more effective than the other? Can we control the need to burn the midnight oil, or is it baked into our DNA?
Scientists have been struggling to answer these questions for years, and they’ve unearthed some interesting facts. A recent study found that genetics do indeed influence whether people naturally get up early or stay up late.
Researchers have also established that there are some cognitive differences between morning people and their late-night counterparts. About a decade ago, a Belgian study identified a link between night owls and the ability to stay focused. After about 10 hours of being awake, larks grew tired while night owls were just hitting their stride, demonstrating increased activity in the areas of the brain associated with paying attention.
That isn’t to say morning people don’t have their strengths. Larks can be agreeable, cooperative, and proactive. They aren’t as likely to procrastinate, and they may even be happier on the whole. But another study, this time conducted at a university in Milan, discovered that night owls tend to be better creative thinkers. Going against the norm by working late into the night might actually allow them to develop a “non-conventional spirit” and “the ability to find alternative and original solutions.”
Sure enough, when scientists analyzed their subjects for originality, elaboration, fluidity, and flexibility, it was the night owls who came out on top. All of this begs the question: Should creative types endeavor to do more of their work after dark?