If you’ve ever had a hard time falling asleep somewhere new you are certainly not alone, whether it’s a hotel room or in a date’s bed. It turns out this is not just because the sheets are different, research says it might actually have something to do with an increase in the left brain activity in your sleeping body.
A recent study that was published Current Biology looked into this “first night effect” to figure out what was keeping us from getting a good night’s sleep even when we desperately needed it.
According to Masako Tamaki, the lead author of the study:
“The first-night effect may be associated with a protective mechanism which monitors unfamiliar surroundings, wakes the humans from deep sleep if necessary so that humans could respond to external signals.”
So it all goes back to our instincts as usual. This practice is actually how some animals get by in general, like marine mammals and birds. They have to be on the lookout for predators basically all the time so they handle that by staying in lighter stages of sleep instead of going deep. Marine mammals also have the added consideration of needing to breath so even when they are sleeping they need to be able to come up for air every so often.
However the researchers wanted to know why in humans this reaction to a new environment dies down a bit by the second night. They got 35 healthy participants to study that did not have any troubles with sleeping normally. Then they had them stay two different nights in a new location and monitored their brains as they did.
The researchers got a lot of info about what was happening in their brains using electroencephalography, magnetoencephalography, and magnetic resonance imaging. They purposefully stimulated the left hemisphere of the brain by playing beeping noises in the right ear, which showed a greater likelihood of them waking up than if they did it the opposite direction.
However they only measured this during the first sleep cycle, so it’s possible that the brain tends to be extra active for external stimuli during that phase.
On the second night that the participants slept there however, neither hemisphere of the brain seemed to be more active than the other.
Beverly Hills psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish explains how our bodies react to a change in environment.
“When we feel at risk of danger, our neurological systems, bodies, and moods react defensively on-guard to protect one with a response of fight or flight (running away), depression, anger and attack, and even a dissociative out-of-body experience.”
So there’s not necessarily anything that you can do to change this process completely, however with this awareness you can try to do everything possible to make yourself feel as safe and as comfortable as possible when you’re sleeping in a new place. And if this feeling does not go away after the first couple nights perhaps a signal from your body that something else is amiss.