Should I oft outwatch the Bear?

There was a reason my mother wouldn’t let me stay up late: she seemed convinced that horrid consequences awaited little boys who lingered too long on the stairs -stunted growth and the need to wear spectacles were amongst her favourites. She never quoted any data that I could find in the Encyclopedia Britannica, however, and I was fairly certain she hadn’t read it in any of the Reader’s Digest editions to which I was also privy in our bathroom. So, in retrospect, I think her reasoning was pretty sketchy. But her wrath was not to be challenged; I quickly learned to acquiesce.

And I suppose she was lucky -I’d fall asleep at the top of the stairs even if I was so bold as to attempt eavesdropping on a particularly raucous party. There was never any chance that I could turn State’s Evidence -or Queen’s Evidence, as I later discovered it was called in Canada- and report anything I’d heard. And of course there was even less chance anybody would be convicted on the reports of a seven-year-old anyway.

But she must have done a good job of selling the early-to-bed thing, despite her lousy prophylactic track record on both the glasses and height, because I simply cannot outwatch the Bear, as the poet Milton put it in describing the act of staying up all night as the Great Bear Constellation of stars overhead circles the North Pole without ever setting. In fact, except for those nights when I had to work, I couldn’t even outwatch the evening news on the CBC.

People and partners used to harangue me about all the exciting social life I was missing, but to no avail. I’d get up most mornings to empty streets, and pull the curtains closed for the evening just as they were filling up. But, apart from the dwindle of dinner invitations, and the lack of phone calls after 8PM, life laughed on with no perceptible diminution of pleasure.

I cultivated morning people as friends, while the night owls flew off with winks and nods, presumably to various nocturnal cabals which no longer required my apologies, and which, in all likelihood, could not even remember who I was. Or care.

It’s amazing how arrogant one can be about the hours one keeps. Because I eschewed soirees, it was naturally assumed that I was trying to make a point: that I secretly belonged to some clandestine sect which believed the evils of darkness could only be dispelled by sleep, and the avoidance of loud bacchanalian noises. And that I might some show up on their doorsteps early one morning handing out pamphlets.

Little did I suspect that even if I had pamphlets, the gainsayers might no longer be around… Sometimes it pays to read outside the box:  ‘Being a night owl [as in someone possibly circadially disrupted] has been associated with a range of health problems. For example, night owls [a chronotype] have higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Night owls are also more likely to have unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, alcohol and drug use, and physical inactivity.’ Of course, my prescient mother had already suspected the consequences of late nights, so it came as no surprise to an acolyte like her son. I just never thought anybody would want to study it, though.

‘Our chronotype is […] related to our biological clock. Morning larks’ biological clocks are set earlier. Their habitual bedtimes and wake times occur earlier in the day. Night owls have internal clocks set for later times. But are there any problems related to being a lark or owl, other than scheduling difficulties? Research suggests that there are; night owls tend to have worse health.’ This may be because shift work, or even the exigencies of everyday work may mean hours that interfere with wakefulness.

‘[W]e [the authors, Kristen Knutson, Associate Professor of Neurology, Northwestern University, and Malcolm von Schantz, Professor of Chronobiology, University of Surrey] compared risk of dying between night owls and morning larks. In this study, death certificates were collected for an average of 6.5 years after the initial study visit to identify those who died. We found that night owls had a 10 percent increased risk of death over this six-and-a-half year period compared to larks. We also found that owls are more likely to have a variety of health problems compared to larks, particularly psychiatric disorders like depression, diabetes and neurological disorders.’

‘We researchers do not fully understand why we see more health problems in night owls. It could be that being awake at night offers greater opportunity to consume alcohol and drugs. For some, being awake when everyone else is sleeping may lead to feelings of loneliness and increased risk of depression. It could also be related to our biological clocks. […] an important function of internal biological clocks is to anticipate when certain things, like sunrise, sleep and eating, will occur. Ideally, our behavior will match both our internal clock and our environment. What happens when it doesn’t? We suspect that “misalignment” between the timing of our internal clock and the timing of our behaviors could be detrimental over the long run.’

Even in early risers, though, the changes produced by switching from standard, to daylight savings time can have measurable detrimental effects -for example, a study reported in another edition of the Conversation (Mar.6, 2018): ‘The time change also affects our judgment in formal settings. A recent study found that judges hand out harsher sentences — 5 percent longer in duration— the Monday following the time change, as compared to other days of the year. This means that sleep and public policy related to sleep could be influencing important decisions that should be impartial. These studies are only the tip of the iceberg, with adverse consequence of the time change ranging from student test scores to stock market returns.’

At any rate, I don’t want to wax hubristic, or suggest that my mother should have toured the talk shows, or anything, but she was obviously ahead of her time, don’t you think? Mind you, we didn’t even have a television until I was 12 or 13, so there was probably nothing much to do most nights. And I don’t remember seeing Milton’s Il Penseroso in the Reader’s Digest either; it would definitely have put her to sleep early…


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