Brain performance could be altered by all those late nights

Tired businesswoman at overtime at officeIt has been known for many years that people who work shifts have problems with things like memory skills. Essentially, each of us has a series of natural rhythms to our bodily processes and when they get disrupted, problems can arise. True, those rhythms learn to adapt and change somewhat, but anyone who constantly works nights will tell you that they are never quite the same as they were when they had a normal 9 to 5.

Now, new research has shown the true impact of these changes on people who work shifts for long periods of time. It turns out that if you work on shifts for a decade or more there is a significant decline in cognitive functions, equivalent to an age-related drop of 6.5 years. The study focused on 3,000 people who had variable shift patterns, not people who only worked nights, so it is possible that it is the constant changing of the rhythms of the body is to blame. But the research highlights the fact that disruption to our normal rhythms has an impact on our ability to perform mentally.

This research coincides with another study on “chronotypes”. Generally, you perform better at certain types of the day. Some people have a chronotype that makes them perform better in the morning, commonly referred to as “larks”. Others perform better in the evenings – the “owls”. Both of these types have been linked to the way the “reticular activating system” works – this is like an “on-off” switch in your brain. It appears to be linked to personality types, with extroverts, for instance, having an on-off switch that is difficult to operate so it needs lots of stimulation to fire itself up. As a result, most extroverts have an owl chronotype.

In practical terms, what this all means is that knowing what chronotype you are helps you determine what time of day you work the best. At least that was until this new study. This found that far from there being larks and owls, there are two other chronotypes – people who perform well at two different times of the day. Perhaps the selection of shift workers should be based on chronotypes, choosing the owls to work at night, for instance. At least that way there should be less impact on cognitive performance.

The impact of the Internet

The problem with the Internet is that it is on and available 24/7. That means, regardless of your chronotype you can access your emails or surf the web at any time of the day or night. Increasing numbers of people are doing this, spending all day online in the office to return home to spend hours online in the evening and checking their emails and Facebook page before going to bed. Indeed many people are so enthralled by the Internet they believe they are even addicted to it.

That’s unlikely. More likely is that they cannot deny themselves the reward they get from checking in with their friends or replying to an email so that their work is “finished”. Of course, it never is completed because those emails get replied to and another friend comes online. So, we face the constant pressure to do more and more online and never let go.

Therein lies the same problem that shift workers face – cognitive damage.

The Internet is a fascinating, lively and wonderful place. But the real danger to your business is the cognitive damage of all those late nights just “catching up” on email, for example. That could significantly change your ability to think and remember, unless you are an “owl” chronotype. And if your cognitive ability is altered by excessive Internet use, you won’t be able to make the best decisions in your day-to-day work.

Ultimately what this means is that you should know what chronotype you are, use the Internet during those hours and then switch it off once you are past your peak. Your brain will love you for it.


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