Sometimes it feels like the world is a gloomy place in the middle of the night.
Negative thoughts have a habit of creeping into your mind in the dark as you lie awake, gazing at the ceiling. Many people even find themselves seeking vices like a cigarette or a meal high in carbohydrates.
Numerous studies demonstrate that being up at night modifies how the human mind works. After midnight, we are more likely to focus on negative feelings than on positive, be more attracted to dangerous ideas, and lose our inhibitions.
According to some experts, the human circadian rhythm is heavily involved in these major changes in function, as they outline in their new paper published in Frontiers in Network Psychology summarizing how brain systems function differently when it’s dark.
Their theory, dubbed “Mind After Midnight,” contends that there is a natural 24-hour cycle of activity that shapes emotion and behavior in the human body and mind.
In other words, our species tends to feel and behave a particular way during certain hours. For example, molecular levels and brain activity are tailored to wakefulness during the day, while our typical nighttime tendency is to sleep.
Still following? Good.
From an evolutionary standpoint this actually makes a lot of sense.
While the night is a fantastic time for relaxation, humans are historically more likely to become the hunted at night since they are far more efficient at acquiring food and hunting during the day.
Researchers claim that in order to manage this elevated danger, we pay exceptionally close attention to unpleasant stimuli at night.
Have you ever gotten stuck reading about bad news on your phone in the middle of the night? Yeah, that’s not good.
This extreme concentration on the bad can then feed into a modified reward/motivation system, which makes a person particularly susceptible to risky behaviors, even though it could have once helped us react to unseen threats.
The difficulty with this state of consciousness only gets worse when sleep loss is included.
“There are millions of people who are awake in the middle of the night, and there’s fairly good evidence that their brain is not functioning as well as it does during the day,” explained neurologist Elizabeth Klerman from Harvard University.
“My plea is for more research to look at that, because their health and safety, as well as that of others, is affected.”
The authors of the new hypothesis provide two examples to support their argument.
In the first case, a heroin user effectively controls their cravings during the day but gives in to them at night.
The second depicts an insomniac college student who, as the sleepless nights mount up, starts to experience feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, and despair.
Both scenarios have the potential to be fatal. Self-harm and suicide attempt rates spike at night. In fact, according to some studies, the risk of suicide is three times higher between the hours of midnight and six in the morning than at any other time of day.
According to a study published in 2020, nighttime wakefulness increases the risk of suicide “possibly through misalignment of circadian rhythms.”
“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 authors of the hypothesis explain.
People also use illicit or harmful substances more frequently at night. A controlled drug consumption facility in Brazil conducted study in 2020 that found there was a 4.7-fold increased chance of opioid overdose at night.
There are likely nightly neurobiological changes at work in addition to sleep debt or the cover that darkness provides for some of these activities.
To make sure we are safeguarding individuals who are most at danger from nocturnal wakefulness, researchers like Klerman and her colleagues believe we need to look into these aspects more thoroughly.
According to the authors, no studies have yet looked into how circadian timing and sleep deprivation affect a person’s ability to process rewards.
As a result, we are unaware of how shift employees like pilots and doctors are adapting to their irregular sleeping patterns. We have a remarkable lack of knowledge about how the human brain functions for about six hours each and every day.
The human mind after midnight is mysterious whether one is awake or asleep.
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