Night owls have sharper brain function than so-called morning people, research suggests

Getting to bed early is often considered a must for anyone who wants to be at the top of their game the following day.

But a new study suggests that people who are night owls, such as Barack Obama, Winston Churchill and Robbie Williams could be sharper than morning people.

The findings reveal that those who are most active and alert in the evenings appear to perform better at cognitive tests.

Researchers, led by academics from Imperial College London, said that various studies have examined sleep and cognitive abilities – in particular the length that someone sleeps – but little is known about sleep patterns, or chronotypes, and cognition.

So they examined data on thousands of people taking part in the UK Biobank study to examine the ‘intricate relationships’ between sleep duration, quality and chronotype – categorised in the study as ‘morningness’, ‘eveningness’ or, where a person did not particularly align to either of the two, ‘intermediate’.

A new study suggests that people who are night owls could be sharper than morning people

Famous night owls include former US president Barack Obama who reportedly went to bed well past midnight only to wake up at 7am

Famous night owls include former US president Barack Obama who reportedly went to bed well past midnight only to wake up at 7am

British political titan and former prime minister Winston Churchill was also a night owl, going to bed at 4am and rising so late that he hosted War Cabinet meetings in his bath.

British political titan and former prime minister Winston Churchill was also a night owl, going to bed at 4am and rising so late that he hosted War Cabinet meetings in his bath.

People taking part in the study underwent tests which examined their intelligence, reasoning skills, reaction times and memory.

The researchers analysed data on almost 27,000 people, comparing how well they performed on these tests to their self-reported sleep duration, sleep pattern and sleep quality.

People who got between seven and nine hours of sleep each night appeared to perform best on the tests, according to the study, which has been published in the journal BMJ Public Health.

Academics also found that night owls and those classed as ‘intermediate’ had ‘superior cognitive function’.

Being a woman, increasing age and having a diagnosis of angina, high blood pressure and diabetes appeared to ‘worsen cognitive performance’, they added.

The lead author of the research, Dr Raha West, from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London, said: ‘Our study found that adults who are naturally more active in the evening – what we called ‘eveningness’ – tended to perform better on cognitive tests than those who are “morning people”.

‘Rather than just being personal preferences, these chronotypes could impact our cognitive function.’

She added: ‘While understanding and working with your natural sleep tendencies is essential, it’s equally important to remember to get just enough sleep, not too long or too short.

‘This is crucial for keeping your brain healthy and functioning at its best.’

Co-study leader Professor Daqing Ma, also from Imperial’s Department of Surgery and Cancer, added: ‘We found that sleep duration has a direct effect on brain function, and we believe that proactively managing sleep patterns is really important for boosting, and safeguarding, the way our brains work.

‘We’d ideally like to see policy interventions to help sleep patterns improve in the general population.’

'The King' Elvis Presley also had late night sleeping habits, often only having breakfast at 4pm.

‘The King’ Elvis Presley also had late night sleeping habits, often only having breakfast at 4pm. 

Pop star Robbie Williams has also said he is a night owl previously claiming he doesn't go to sleep until 6am and makes his first meal of the day at 5pm. Williams is pictured here earlier this month

Pop star Robbie Williams has also said he is a night owl previously claiming he doesn’t go to sleep until 6am and makes his first meal of the day at 5pm. Williams is pictured here earlier this month

 However, independent experts have cautioned the findings. 

Professor Roi Cohen Kadosh, an expert of cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Surrey said while the research was ‘solid’ its presentation was ‘inaccurate’. 

‘This study cannot tell us anything about the impact of sleep on cognition, and a title like “make you sharper” is wrong. It can of course tell us about the association of sleep with cognition but not any causal effect,’ he said.

‘I fear that the general public will not be able to understand that and will change their sleep pattern.

‘I think that a policy intervention based on this study is premature and a different research, with a different design is required to justify that.’

Dr Jessica Chelekis, a sleep expert from Brunel University London, also took issue with the wording used in the study saying it ‘exaggerates the takeaway’.

‘While the study design is fine, there are important limitations.’ she said. 

‘The most important one is that the authors never state what time of day the participants took part in the cognitive tests, which could have serious implications for their results. 

‘In addition, the authors also state that they did not take into account the educational attainment of the participants.’ 

She added: ‘In my expert opinion, the main takeaway should be that the cultural belief that early risers are more productive than ‘night owls’ does not hold up to scientific scrutiny. 

‘While everyone should aim to get good-quality sleep each night, we should also try to be aware of what time of day we are at our best and work in ways that suit us. 

‘Night owls, in particular, should not be shamed into fitting a stereotype that favours an “early to bed, early to rise” practice.’

Famous night owls include former US president Barack Obama who reportedly went to bed well past midnight only to wake up at 7am.

British political titan and former prime minister Winston Churchill was also a night owl, going to bed at 4am and rising so late that he hosted War Cabinet meetings in his bath.

‘The King’ Elvis Presley also had late night sleeping habits, often only having breakfast at 4pm. 

On the opposite side of the spectrum Apple's Tim Cook is early to bed and early to rise commonly going to sleep at about 9.30 pm and waking up 3.45am

On the opposite side of the spectrum Apple’s Tim Cook is early to bed and early to rise commonly going to sleep at about 9.30 pm and waking up 3.45am

In contrast to her husband Michelle Obama is up early, at 4.30am, and then in bed by 10pm

In contrast to her husband Michelle Obama is up early, at 4.30am, and then in bed by 10pm

Editor-in-chief of Vogue Anna Wintour is another 'lark often in ben by 10.15pm and rising six to seven hours later

Editor-in-chief of Vogue Anna Wintour is another ‘lark often in ben by 10.15pm and rising six to seven hours later

Pop star Robbie Williams has also said he is a night owl previously claiming he doesn’t go to sleep until 6am and makes his first meal of the day at 5pm. 

On the other side of the spectrum, famous ‘larks’, those who are early to bed and early to rise include Apple’s Tim Cook, Michelle Obama and editor-in-chief of Vogue Anna Wintour.

In fact, being early to rise is seemingly common among entrepreneurs and CEOs with surveys suggesting the majority (37 per cent) wake up at 6am.

Getting by on a limited amount of sleep also seems to be a habit of politicians and business leaders alike. 

Former PM Margaret Thatcher, for example, famously got by on about four hours of shut-eye.

Some leaders get by on limited amounts of sleep, former-PM Margaret Thatcher famously got by on about four hours of shut-eye

Some leaders get by on limited amounts of sleep, former-PM Margaret Thatcher famously got by on about four hours of shut-eye

Another ex-leader, Donald Trump, famously only sleeps four to five hours a night .

Another ex-leader, Donald Trump, famously only sleeps four to five hours a night .

Tesla and X owner Elon Musk is another famous face to only get between three to six of hours of shut eye each night

Tesla and X owner Elon Musk is another famous face to only get between three to six of hours of shut eye each night

American retail businesswoman, writer, and television personality Martha Stewart is another famous figure who gets by on minimal shut-eye reportedly only sleeping about four hours

American retail businesswoman, writer, and television personality Martha Stewart is another famous figure who gets by on minimal shut-eye reportedly only sleeping about four hours

Hollywood star Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson is another celeb to also sleep either less or at the bare minimum typically recommended

Hollywood star Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is another celeb to also sleep either less or at the bare minimum typically recommended 

Jennifer Aniston, of Friends fame, is one celeb with variable sleep patterns either getting up at 4.30am if she's working or sleeping in until 8am or 9am if she's not

Jennifer Aniston, of Friends fame, is one celeb with variable sleep patterns either getting up at 4.30am if she’s working or sleeping in until 8am or 9am if she’s not

Another former leader who sleep for less than the recommended minimum of six include ex-US President Donald Trump, who famously only sleeps four to five hours a night.

Elon Musk, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Martha Stewart also claim to only get between three to six of hours of shut eye each night.

Jennifer Aniston, of Friends fame, is one celeb with variable sleep patterns either getting up at 4.30am if she’s working or sleeping in until 8am or 9am if she’s not. 

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