Why Your First Night Away Might Be Restless

With summer in full swing, it’s more than likely that there will be some traveling in your future. And whether you’re traveling for pleasure or business, no matter how cushy the accommodations, your first night in a room not your own could mess with your sleep. This is due to a scientific phenomenon known as the “first-night effect.” It turns out that despite evolution, our human brains are still wired to “keep an eye” on unfamiliar surroundings, with one half of the brain – generally the left side – acting as a night watchman for that first night in a foreign place.

Though detected more than 50 years ago– scientists have found that subjects’ first night in a lab yields notoriously unreliable results, causing researchers to usually discount that first night’s data – first-night effect has received more recent attention, including a 2016 study out of Brown University that sought to better understand what was at play during this anomaly. In this experiment, scientists used several different methods to track slow-wave activity, which occurs during the deep sleep phase, within a small group of volunteers. Researchers stimulated both sides of the brain by playing quiet beeping noises – at both steady and infrequent intervals – into each ear during the slow-wave phase. During the first night of the experiment, participants’ brains consistently showed more alertness in the left hemisphere which was more responsive to the infrequent beeping, with subjects waking quicker and more readily from the beeping processed by the left side of their brains. The second night didn’t yield the same response, with both halves of the brain responding similarly, suggesting that the “left side watchman” is only on high alert for that first night.

These findings also indicate a shared tool of survival with others in the animal kingdom. Birds and many marine animals have been found to be able to only sleep with one half of their brains, while the other remains awake to (in some cases, quite literally) keep an eye open for danger. Our human brains haven’t yet gotten the message that our nights are no longer necessarily a time of a danger, and scientists contend that there may not be a way to retrain the brain to relax the brain that first night in an unfamiliar bed.

But to hedge your bets on having a decent first-night’s sleep, it doesn’t hurt to incorporate good sleep hygiene into your routine when away from home: lay off the heavy foods, alcohol and caffeine several hours before sleeping; keep your sleeping space as cool, dark and quiet as possible; abstain from electronics about 90 minutes before bed; and it doesn’t hurt to bring along a familiar, comfortable pillow – both the scent and feel of your favorite pillow can aid in relaxation, helping to calm your agitated, worried left brain.

And if none of these work, that’s what coffee is for. At least you can take comfort that there’s a fair chance that your next night will be more restful.

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This article originally appeared in Sleep Retailer eNews on July 13, 2017

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