Scientists warn that the human mind is not designed to wake up after midnight

In the middle of the night, the world can sometimes seem like a dark place. In the dark, negative thoughts flood your mind, and when you wake up, you may find yourself staring at the ceiling and craving guilty pleasures like a cigarette or a carb-heavy meal.

A lot of evidence shows that the human mind works differently when awake during the night. After midnight, negative emotions dominate our attention more than positive ones, dangerous ideas increase and obstacles are removed.

Some researchers believe that the circadian rhythm has a significant role in these critical changes in human function, according to a new paper that summarizes evidence of how brain systems function differently after dark.

Their hypothesis, called “The Mind After Midnight,” suggests that the human body and human mind follow a natural 24-hour work cycle that influences our emotions and behavior.

In short, at certain hours our species tends to feel and act in certain ways. For example, daytime molecular levels and brain activity are adapted to wakefulness. But at night, our usual behavior is to sleep.

From an evolutionary perspective, this certainly makes sense. Although humans are much more efficient at hunting and gathering during the day, and the night is perfect for relaxation, humans were once in danger of becoming the hunted.

According to the researchers, our focus on negative stimuli is unusually heightened at night to deal with this heightened threat. Where it helps us jump to unseen dangers, this hyper-focus on the negative then feeds into an altered reward/motivation system, predisposing a person to particularly risky behaviors.

Add sleep loss to the equation, and this state of consciousness becomes even more problematic.

“There are millions of people who wake up in the middle of the night, and there’s good evidence that their brains aren’t working as well as they do during the day,” says Elizabeth Klerman, a neurologist at Harvard University.

“My request is that more research is needed to look at this because of the impact on their health and safety, as well as the health of others.”

The authors of the new hypothesis use two examples to prove their point. The first example is a heroin user who successfully controls his cravings during the day but succumbs to them at night.

The other is a college student struggling with insomnia.

Both scenarios can ultimately lead to death. Suicide and self-harm are more common at night. In fact, some studies report that the risk of suicide is three times higher between midnight and 6:00 a.m. compared to other times of the day.

A 2020 study found that night awakenings are a risk factor for suicide, “perhaps due to the misalignment of circadian rhythms.”

“Previously unthinkable suicide occurs as an escape from loneliness and pain, and by the time the costs of suicide are calculated, the student has the resources and willingness to act when no one is awake enough to stop them,” the authors write. The “mind after midnight” hypothesis explains.

People also take more illegal or dangerous substances at night. A 2020 study at a controlled substance abuse center in Brazil found that nighttime opioid overdoses were 4.7 times higher.

Some of these behaviors may be explained by sleep debt or the cover offered by darkness, but there are also nocturnal neurological changes.

Researchers like Klerman and her colleagues think we need to study these factors more to protect those most at risk from night wakings.

To date, the authors say, no studies have examined how sleep deprivation and circadian timing affect human reward processing.

So we don’t know how shift workers like pilots or doctors cope with their unusual sleep patterns.

For about six hours a day, we know surprisingly little about how the human brain works. Whether asleep or awake, the mind after midnight is a mystery.

The study was published Frontiers in Network Psychology.


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