Sleep Wave Surfing

At one point in my adult life, I learned about the morning-lark vs. night-owl spectrum. It is then when I realized I’m a night owl and there’s a flock of others like me out there. It is an odd feeling to suddenly realize you are not an oddity among humans. In fact, 30 percent of people are night owls. All of a sudden you realize you are not broken. You are not alone. I have been reading the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, and it helped realize more and more we are not abnormal. We are merely existing in a societal setup that is hostile to our genetic makeup and in constant battle of survival until the next evening which is when we feel like ourselves. This post will not be concerned with the science, for which you may refer to the book, rather I will try to cover the experience. I’ve already passed a draft of this by a friend with whom I had a conversation and found many similarities. We are not weirdos (okay, maybe we are).

Much of the realizations of something being common come from sharing experiences with others and finding someone else is silently having the same experience. I realized during college that the gears of my brain turn smoother in the evening, typically post midnight. Essay writing goes from feeling like trying to squeeze water out of an already dry towel into a waterfall of thoughts running through my brain when late the clock strikes midnight. It was always late nights, just like when this post is being written. Mr. Brain didn’t function creatively during the day. I imagined it back then to be an eccentricity of my brain. Later I learned this is how night owls function, and that I was one. Since then, I have had many arguments with many people over, what I call, chronotype-chauvinism, who always tend to be morning larks imposing their worldview and experience as the One True Way. “Just sleep early and get up early,” they say. If only…1

Many seem to have the illusion that if your current sleep pattern happens to put you asleep around 5pm and wakes you up at midnight, then you can shift your pattern around by staying up later, like till 10, and, et voila, you’re waking up at 5am now. Allow me to shatter your supposed reality by saying it doesn’t work that way. Sleep duration isn’t a window that you just move around. What ends up happening, most of the time, is me not being sleepy anymore. This is an argument I had with a psychologist who was adamant you can just not sleep at a certain o’clock and choose to fall asleep at another. Sleep isn’t some balance or cheque which you cash out whenever you feel like. Sleep comes in waves; and if you miss the wave, you have to wait for the next. Also, just like waves, some are big and others are small. The big ones are the ones that take you 8, 9, 10, and 12 hours of sleep. The small waves will only let you sleep for an hour or 2. It is completely possible for me to have been up for 24 hours, and ride the closest wave I can take up, but it ends up being the wrong wave and hibernates me for 2 or 3 hours rather than the long one. Moreover, there’s no way to know which wave you are currently feeling unless you’re privy to your current pattern and have been keeping notes of how your pattern is shifting. Oh yeah, it shifts! At least mine does.

The sleep duration moves around the day. There’s no apparent pattern. It just moves. Now I must make something clear… Coffee. Isn’t. Why. It. Moves! It isn’t why the wave is delayed. The sleep window could have just shifted for no reason besides it feeling like shifting (no pattern that I have noticed yet). I’ve had days where I chugged 3~4 cups of coffee, none of which were decaf, and still fall asleep for the entire night by riding a wave which arrived soon after finishing a cuppa. I’ve had days of only 1 cup of coffee, 1 or 2 cups of decaf, or no caffeine at all, and yet still can’t have a wave early into the night or a wave that takes me through the entire night. The next time I have someone telling me “it’s because of all that coffee you chug all day” when I’m going through insomnia, some teeth are gonna hit the floor!

Much of this post was written during frustrating nights when I needed to sleep but couldn’t, either due to absence of wave or due to run-of-the-mill insomnia. Much of it was written as I was feeling bitter at and envious of those who can sleep at-will. It isn’t right for me to envy them for something they are genetically dispositioned to, but when you are in constant social jetlag accompanied by constant sleep shortage, you lose much of your power of inhibition. That I recognize, but recognition is lost when you’re functioning on 3~4 hours of sleep for days and weeks.

Noteworthy Quotes from Why We Sleep

“There are two main factors that determine when you want to sleep and when you want to be awake. (…). The first factor is a signal beamed out from your internal twenty-four-hour clock located deep within your brain. (…). The second factor is a chemical substance that builds up in your brain and creates a ‘sleep pressure’.”

– Page 13

“Wakefulness and sleep are therefore under the control of the circadian rhythm, and not the other way around. That is, your circadian rhythm will march up and down every twenty-four hours irrespective of whether you have slept or not. Your circadian rhythm is unwavering in this regard. But look across individuals, and you discover that not everyone’s circadian timing is the same.”

– Page 20

“For some people, their peak of wakefulness arrives in early in the day, and their sleepiness trough arrives early at night. These are ‘morning types’, and make about 40 percent of the populace. (…). Others are ‘evening types,’ and account for approximately 30 percent of the population. They naturally prefer going to bed late and subsequently wake up late the following morning, or even in the afternoon.”

– Page 20

“Night owls are frequently incapable of falling asleep early at night, no matter how hard they try. It is only in the early-morning hours that owls can drift off.”

– Page 20

“When a night owl is forced to wake up too early, their prefrontal cortex remains in disabled, ‘offline’ state.”

– Page 21

“An adult’s ownless or larkness, also known as their chronotype, is strongly determined by genetics. (…). Sadly, society treats night owls rather unfairly on two counts. (…). Others (usually morning larks) will chastise night owls on the erroneous assumption that such preferences are a choice, and if they were not so slovely, they could easily wake up early. However, night owls are not owls by choice. They are bound to a delayed schedule by unavoidable DNA hardwiring. It is not their conscious fault, but rather their genetic fate.”

– Page 21

“You may have assumed that the two governing forces that regulate your sleep – the twenty-four-hour circadian rhythm of the suprachiasmatic nucleus and the sleep-pressure signal of adenosine – communicate with each other so as to unite their influences. In actual fact, they don’t. They are two distinct and separate systems that are ignorant of each other. They are not coupled.”

– Page 31

  1. I wouldn’t trade being a night-owl for the World. There are times when I hate being a night-owl, especially when the social-jetlag gets hard, but I am happy for being one. ↩︎