An Owl in A Lark World

This article, about sleep, has been particularly relevant to me lately. Since returning from Australia, I’ve been struggling to sleep. It reached an awful nadir the past weekend when I was able to get only about two hours. Since then, I’ve been rebuilding things with better sleep hygiene (i.e., turning the computer off no later than 10:30) and was able to get five straight hours last night, which was a huge relief.

What jumped out at me was this, which is relevant to my perennial struggles with sleep:

Each of us has an internal clock, or, to use Roenneberg’s term, a “chronotype.” Either we’re inclined to go to bed early and wake up at dawn, in which case we’re “larks,” or we like to stay up late and get up later, which makes us “owls.” (One’s chronotype seems to be largely inherited, although Roenneberg notes, not altogether helpfully, that the “genetics are complex.”) During the week, everyone is expected to get to the office more or less at the same time—let’s say 9 a.m. This suits larks just fine. Owls know they ought to go to bed at a reasonable time, but they can’t—they’re owls. So they end up having to get up one, two, or, in extreme cases, three hours earlier than their internal clock would dictate. This is what Roenneberg refers to as “social jet lag”—each workday, owls fall asleep in one time zone and, in effect, wake up in another. By the time the week is over, they’re exhausted. They “fly back” to their internal time zone on weekends and sleep in on Saturday and Sunday. Then, on Monday, they start the process all over again.

For larks, the problem is reversed. Social life is arranged so that it’s hard to have one unless you stay out late on Friday and Saturday nights. But, even when larks have partied till 3 a.m., they can’t sleep in the following day—they’re larks. So they stagger through until Monday, when they can finally get some rest.

The moral equivalence here is staggering. First of all, the problem for “larks” is non-existent for most people. If you have a family or are past the age of 30, it’s rare to stay up partying late on weekends. But the problem for “owls” never ends. No matter what age you are, you are expected to be at work at 9 am or earlier.

The simple fact is that the larks set the rules for the rest of us. And moreover, they cast their larkness as a sign of their virtue and industry (see Franklin, Ben). Those of us who are owls are seen as lazy sluggards. And this prejudice is only strengthened by our schools, government and military setting lark schedules (an especially odious practice in schools where, as the article notes, children are biologically prone to be owls but forced to live on adult lark schedules).

But, in a way, I’m being too harsh on the larks. The problem is partially them but also our insistance, as a society, on conformity. Everyone has to go to work at the same time, everyone has to come home at the same time. This makes some sense — businesses have to be open simultaneously to interact. But we carry it to a ridiculous extreme. It manifests not just in the owl-lark problem but in the absurdity of Daylight Savings Time (it would make far more sense for businesses to adjust their hours to the season on an individual basis, rather than forcing uniformity on all of us; astronomers understand this).

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