200px-benjamin_franklin_by_joseph_siffred_duplessisimages-1180px-mtwainappletonsjournal4july74Owl look alike, Owl, and Twain

Benjamin Franklin famously declared, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”  Yet it appears that Mark Twain was on target in challenging Franklin’s maxim with George Washington’s response, “I don’t see it.”

Empirical study has confirmed that there is no inherent benefit in being an early riser.  As a matter of fact, night owls, those whose circadian clocks are set so that they are more alert later in the day, are penalized by a folk wisdom (Franklin’s) that is simply false.  This is a more serious issue than you might think.   Imagine, and I am speaking here to you “early risers,” if you were forced by the expectations of friends, bosses, and colleagues to rise by, say, 1:00 AM day after day.   So that to get a good night’s rest, you would have to fall asleep (and stay asleep) by 5:00 in the afternoon.  This parallels what is asked of night owls, that is, to fall asleep and wake up hours before their bodies are ready.  This at minimum leads night owls to work at less than their optimum (and in some leads to an unending battle with sleep deprivation).

Leon Kreitzman does an excellent job summarizing research and insight into differences in sleep patterns in today’s New York Times.   As a night owl, I want to thank him for his efforts.   Here is an excerpt.

“Guest Column: Larks, Owls and Hummingbirds”

This evening/morningness is less a matter of choice than of genetics. Being bright-eyed and raring to go first thing in the morning is not just a case of how much sleep someone has had, nor is it a reflection of willpower. Genes may largely determine it.

It might be envy on my part, but those early-rising larks I have known have often seemed to my bleary early-morning eye to adopt a smug moral superiority based on Benjamin Franklin’s maxim, “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” But there is no basis for Franklin’s claim. Catharine Gale and Christopher Martyn of Southampton University followed up a 1973 survey that had included data on sleeping habits. More than 20 years later they found no evidence among the survivors that following Franklin’s advice was associated with any health, socioeconomic or cognitive advantage.

If anything, owls were wealthier than larks, though there was no difference in their health or wisdom. Gale and Martyn wryly offer the thought that “it seems that owls need not worry that their way of life carries adverse consequences. However, those who cite Franklin’s maxim to encourage their children to go to bed early may wish to consider whether their practice is entirely ethical.”


UPDATE, May 7th, 2009   I recently read about a study that suggested those who slept in the day were more likely to develop a condition that preceded hardening of the arteries.  However, as far as I could tell, the study did not make any distinction between night owls and those who are forced to work at night, but who are actually day people.  If I can locate the research, I will post it.

2 thoughts

  1. Mitchell,

    You have inspired me, in good-natured opposition. I’m commencing a new blog called “Up@dawn,” dedicated to exploring the hypothesis that we morning people might also have something to offer the blogosphere… http://osopher.wordpress.com/

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