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J Biol Rhythms. 2003 Feb;18(1):80-90.

Life between clocks: daily temporal patterns of human chronotypes.

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  • 1Center for Chronobiology, Institute for Medical Psychology, Munich, Germany.


Human behavior shows large interindividual variation in temporal organization. Extreme "larks" wake up when extreme "owls" fall asleep. These chronotypes are attributed to differences in the circadian clock, and in animals, the genetic basis of similar phenotypic differences is well established. To better understand the genetic basis of temporal organization in humans, the authors developed a questionnaire to document individual sleep times, self-reported light exposure, and self-assessed chronotype, considering work and free days separately. This report summarizes the results of 500 questionnaires completed in a pilot study individual sleep times show large differences between work and free days, except for extreme early types. During the workweek, late chronotypes accumulate considerable sleep debt, for which they compensate on free days by lengthening their sleep by several hours. For all chronotypes, the amount of time spent outdoors in broad daylight significantly affects the timing of sleep: Increased self-reported light exposure advances sleep. The timing of self-selected sleep is multifactorial, including genetic disposition, sleep debt accumulated on workdays, and light exposure. Thus, accurate assessment of genetic chronotypes has to incorporate all of these parameters. The dependence of human chronotype on light, that is, on the amplitude of the light:dark signal, follows the known characteristics of circadian systems in all other experimental organisms. Our results predict that the timing of sleep has changed during industrialization and that a majority of humans are sleep deprived during the workweek. The implications are far ranging concerning learning, memory, vigilance, performance, and quality of life.

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