The newsletter of the Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers University

Are you a morning person or a night owl? The time of day when you feel your best and most alert may also be when you can do your most effective learning.

For most people over age 65, performance on memory tests peaks early in the morning and declines in the late afternoon. Teenagers generally show the opposite pattern: their best memory performance is in the evening and worst in the morning. But this is only a rule of thumb: there's a wide variety among individuals of all ages. Some seniors are confirmed night owls and some teenagers wake up bright-eyed to greet the sun.

If you want to learn new information, time of day matters. If you're a morning person, your optimal time to soak up new information may be at the start of the day, when you're feeling wide-awake and alert. But if you're a night owl, this may be the worst time for new learning. In fact, some studies suggest that you can improve your own learning abilities by 20 to 30 percent, just by choosing the right time to do your learning.

And what if you have to do your learning at the non-optimal time of day? At least one intriguing study suggests that a cup of coffee can do the trick: self-declared morning people, who would normally show a decline in their memory performance during the afternoon, can avoid this decline by ingesting caffeinated coffee. (Presumably, other caffeine-containing products like tea, soda, and chocolate, would do the trick too.)

So, to maximize your memory performance, watch the clock. Try to do your new learning at the time of day when you feel most awake and alert. Failing that, if you're a morning person, perhaps a bit of coffee or chocolate can help ward off those afternoon memory blues.

Further Reading

  • "Caffeine reduces time-of-day effects on memory performance in older adults," by Lee Ryan, Colleen Hatfield, and Melissa Hofstetter (Psychological Science, January 2002, Volume 13, Number 1, pp. 68-71).
  • "Optimal time of day and the magnitude of age differences in memory, by Cynthia May, Lynn Hasher, and Ellen Stoltzfus (Psychological Science, September 1993, Volume 4, Number 5, pp. 326-330).