Do You Sleep Well On Your First Night In A New Place?

Do You Sleep Well On Your First Night In A New Place?

When you check into a hotel room or stay with a friend, is your first night of sleep disturbed? Do you toss and turn, mind strangely alert, unable to shut down in the usual way? If so, you’re in good company.

This phenomenon is called the first-night effect, and scientists have known about it for over 50 years. “Even when you look at young and healthy people without chronic sleep problems, 99 percent of the time they show this first-night effect—this weird half-awake, half-asleep state,” says Yuka Sasaki from Brown University.

Other animals can straddle the boundaries between sleeping and wakefulness. Whales, dolphins, and many birds can sleep with just one half of their brains at a time, while the other half stays awake and its corresponding eye stays open. In this way, a bottlenose dolphin can stay awake and alert for at least five days straight, and possibly many more.

Sasaki wondered if humans do something similar, albeit to a less dramatic degree. Maybe when we enter a new environment, one half of our brain stays more awake than the other, so we can better respond to unusual sounds or smells or signs of danger. Maybe our first night in a new place is disturbed because half our brain is pulling an extra shift as a night watchman. “It was a bit of a hunch,” she says. “Maybe we’d find something interesting.”

She invited 11 volunteers to spend a few nights at her laboratory. They slept in a hulking medical scanner that measured their brain activity, while electrodes on their heads and hands measured their brain waves, eye movements, heart rate, and more. “The scanner has a bed that could go completely flat, and we put a lot of pillows and towels to make it comfortable,” says Sasaki. “It was a little restricted but people could still sleep.” And sure enough, they took longer to fall asleep and slept less deeply on the first night.

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