Researchers Call for New Studies to Learn How Our Brains Change When We’re Awake After Midnight

The Mind After Midnight concept may apply to you if you've ever remained up late leaving angry comments on Twitter postings, eaten a whole pint of ice cream right out of the carton, drinking another bottle of wine, or just feeling unhappy.

According to the hypothesis, which was recently described in a paper published in Frontiers in Network Psychology, when people are awake during the biological circadian night—generally after midnight—neurophysiological changes occur in the brain that change how they interact with the outside world, particularly when it comes to actions like reward processing, impulse control, and information processing.

These alterations can increase your propensity for negative worldviews, hazardous actions, and rash decisions (especially those involving compulsive behaviors like gambling and substance addiction) without fully considering the repercussions.

Your internal biological circadian clock is tuned towards processes that promote sleep, not wakefulness, after midnight, according to the paper's senior author, Elizabeth B. Klerman, MD, PhD, a researcher in the department of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital, and a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

In order to better understand how these circadian disparities impact behavior, decision-making, and work performance at night—and discover techniques that might help individuals cope—Klerman views the theory as a call for researchers to conduct additional studies.

Pilots, medical professionals, police officers, and members of the armed forces are just a few of the occupations that may be impacted by the results. New approaches to reducing violent crime, substance abuse problems, suicides, and other harmful behaviors may result from research as well.

Numerous studies have shown that people who are up in the middle of the night have brains that are not operating as effectively as they do while they are asleep, according to Klerman. "I beg for further study to look at it since it affects both their health and safety and the safety of others,"

Dark Hours Are Bad Hours

Previous studies have demonstrated that people are more likely to engage in dangerous conduct, such as substance abuse, violent crime, and suicide, at night.

For instance, Michael L. Perlis, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of the Mind After Midnight hypothesis, discovered that suicides are statistically more likely to occur at night when you account for the number of people awake at any given time.

The danger of using drugs like cannabis, alcohol, or opioids in an illegal or inappropriate way increases at night, as do homicides and other violent crimes.

As we gravitate toward more carbs, fats, and processed meals at night and frequently consume more calories than we require, our evening food choices also tend to be harmful.

Why then do all these negative habits manifest themselves at night?

There are a few apparent explanations: for one, it's much simpler to commit a crime when it's dark out, and there are less people around and awake at night to assist us control our conduct. However, there may also be a biological reason.

According to Klerman, the circadian effect on the neuronal activity in our brains fluctuates during the course of a 24-hour period, resulting in variations in how we interpret and react to the outside environment.

For instance, positive affect, which refers to the propensity to perceive information favorably, peaks in the morning when circadian effects are set to alertness and peaks in the evening when circadian influences are tuned to sleep.

Parallel to this, negative affect—the propensity to interpret information negatively or as threatening—is at its peak at night.

Additionally, your body naturally creates more dopamine at night, which might change your reward and motivation processes and raise your propensity for risky conduct.

The decision-making regions of the brain, which typically work to reduce unpleasant emotional distractions and focus on goal-oriented behavior, are then given this biased interpretation of the information.

However, circadian-influenced modifications that might affect decision-making, functioning, and prioritizing are also present in these regions of the brain.

Your perspective on the world narrows and darkens all of a sudden, you start making bad choices, and your mental map of the environment may no longer be accurate.

The outcome? You could overindulge, fail to diagnose a patient properly, wreck an oil tanker into some rocks, or do something worse.

Klerman initially felt some of these emotions when she battled to sleep due to severe jet lag while traveling to Japan.

While she was lying there and watched the clock go tick click tick, "I was beyond myself," she recounts, "even though a portion of my brain understood that ultimately I would fall asleep."

"I then pondered the possibility of drug addiction. If I could, I would be out now looking for narcotics. Later, I understood that this may also apply in cases where there are suicidal inclinations, drug misuse, other impulsive disorders, gambling, or other addictive behaviors. How can I demonstrate that?

Analyzing the Data to Test the Hypothesis

Here, it's important to have evidence. It's vital to remember that Mind After Midnight is still only a theory, one that has to be supported by well planned research investigations.

Ironically, the best way to collect this data without the confounding effects of sleep loss will require researchers and study staff to be awake and working well into the wee hours of the morning, for example, by taking fMRI images of study participants whose sleep cycles have been carefully adjusted for nighttime wakefulness or by implementing other protocols.

"The majority of scientists don't like getting paged in the middle of the night. The majority of research assistants and technicians don't want to stay up at odd hours of the night, Klerman admits.

"However, there are millions of individuals who must stay up late or who do so unintentionally. It will be necessary for some of us to bother ourselves in order to better prepare for, care for, or otherwise assist them.