analog clock strikes midnight
Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
February 10, 2024 ·  4 min read

The Human Mind Is Not Meant to Be Awake After Midnight, Scientists Warn

Are you a morning person who prefers to go to bed early and wake up with the sun? Or, are you a night owl who regularly finds yourself awake in the dark, early hours of the morning? Well, new research shows that being regularly awake after midnight is not such a good thing. In fact, researchers have found that the human mind really isn’t meant to be awake after midnight at all. Here’s why.

The Human Mind Is Not Meant To Be Awake After Midnight, According To Research

We’ve all heard the saying “nothing good ever happens after 2 am” or that getting a good night’s sleep is critical for our health. Scientists have now taken a deep dive into research and have found that staying up late into the night might be worse for us than we thought. In fact, they found that the human mind really is not meant to be awake after midnight at all. (1)

No, they are not talking about how you will be tired the next day and your physical health will suffer. Rather, they are talking about how our mind actually functions differently between midnight and 6am. During these hours, negative thoughts tend to take over from positive ones. We might start craving guilty pleasures more, such as a cigarette. Dangerous ideas also become more appealing as our inhibitions tend to be weaker. The question remains: Why?

Why Does The Brain Function Differently After Midnight?

The honest answer is that the researchers still aren’t 100% sure. Truthfully, we know very little about the human brain, and we know even less about it in the hours that we normally should be sleeping. In their paper, The Mind After Midnight: Nocturnal Wakefulness, Behavioral Dysregulation, and Psychopathology they hypothesized that perhaps our natural circadian rhythm has something to do with it.

The idea is that human beings are inclined or programmed to act in certain ways at different hours of the day and night. During the daytime, molecular brain activity is cued to wakefulness whereas at nighttime it is cued for sleep. This makes sense evolutionary-speaking because, unlike other species, human eyes do not function well at night. We evolved to rest when we couldn’t see and be active and productive when we could. 

That being said, long ago nighttime also presented a higher risk of human beings, ourselves, being the hunted ones. For this reason, the researchers believe that perhaps during these late hours our brains are programmed to focus on negative stimuli. In the past, this would have helped us jump into action with the presentation of a threat. Now, however, it makes us more prone to risky behaviors as it feeds into an altered reward/motivation system.

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Modern Examples Of How This Looks

The researchers then used a couple of examples to illustrate what this looks like in a modern-day setting and why it is problematic. One example uses a heroin addict. During the day, they manage their cravings and are able to stay sober. When nighttime comes, however, they can’t drown out the voices calling them to use the drug. They then succumb to their cravings and are at an increased risk of self-harm and overdose, either intentional or on purpose. Other studies have also shown that drug use and overdose risk increase at nighttime. (2)

A second example is a college student who is struggling with insomnia. They are stressed with assignments and tests accumulating faster than they can get them done. Their sleepless nights add up, and with each night they lay awake the feelings of despair, loneliness, and hopelessness increase.  This pushes them into depression and also increases their risk of self-harm and suicide. Again, other research shows that nighttime and wakefulness at night can increase risk of suicide. (3)

“Suicide, previously inconceivable, emerges as an escape from loneliness and pain, and before the costs of suicide are considered the student has acquired the means and is prepared to act at a time when no one is awake to stop them,” the study’s authors explain.

Is Staying Up Late Putting Yourself At Risk?

The researchers have all agreed that more research is needed in this area. It appears as though the brain after midnight does change. This could not only mean people are putting their own health and safety at risk, but they could also be endangering that of others. Their findings also could have important implications for shift workers who often find themselves working during those hours, including nurses, doctors, police officers, firefighters, factory workers, and more.

Some takeaways from this for all of us is that if you do find yourself awake late at night, keep in mind that your brain is not functioning the same way. If negative thoughts are working their way in, or you’re feeling like impulse control is low, remember that it is your brain’s improper functioning telling you these things. Perhaps that knowledge can help you not listen to those voices telling you bad things and to remind yourself that things will seem clearer and better in the morning.

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  1. The Mind After Midnight: Nocturnal Wakefulness, Behavioral Dysregulation, and Psychopathology.” Frontiersin. Andrew S. Tubbs, et al. arch 3, 2022.
  2. Dopamine transporter function fluctuates across sleep/wake state: potential impact for addiction.” Nature. I. P. Alonso, et al. October 8, 2020.
  3. Suicide and sleep: Is it a bad thing to be awake when reason sleeps?.” Science Direct. Michael L.Perlis, et al. October 2016.