It’s known as the witching hour, that time after midnight when witches, demons and all the devil’s kin are said to be most mischievous. The wee hours are indeed a dangerous time, but perhaps less because of any supernatural shenanigans than the wiring of our brains.
A team of U.S. researchers has come up with what they call the Mind after Midnight hypothesis. They suggest neurophysiological changes in our brain caused by being up past midnight alter the way we interact with the world. And not in a good way.
They believe we’re prone to riskier behavior late in the evening. We indulge our stomach’s guilty pleasures, eating unhealthy foods as we watch some late-night comedian.
Substance abuse, including alcohol, opioids and cannabis, also climbs at night. Violent crime and suicides go up, too.
The midnight hypothesis holds that the culprit is our circadian clock, which, in a sense, rewires our brain as we avoid sleep.
The circadian clock is a biological timekeeper that tunes our body to the rotation of our planet. It’s the reason we suffer jet lag after a long flight. Our circadian rhythm also makes blood pressure rise sharply and makes our brain more alert in the morning to help us prepare for the day.
Scientists say disrupting that natural circadian rhythm affects our reward processing, impulse control and information processing. And chronic insomnia has previously been associated with a higher risk of health problems like cardiovascular disease and cancer.
These researchers say there is a glaring need to further study this post-midnight phenomenon. Meantime, get to bed early if you can. A good night’s sleep could just help keep you out of trouble.