This is why your first night sleeping somewhere new is not so restful

You know that feeling when you’re staying in an Airbnb, and even though the place has good vibes, and the host magnanimously proffered her best linens, and even though the blinds are good at blocking out all light, somehow you still find yourself listening to your host’s refrigerator and contemplating death at 3 AM as you wait for the warm blankness of sleep to return? It looks like science has an explanation for that.

According to a new report in the journal Current Biology, you’re not suddenly an insomniac; your brain just won’t shut completely off so that you’ll be capable of “faster responses to risk factors” that you may not yet know about in these unfamiliar environs.

The report comes from the findings of an experiment by a team including Yuka Sasaki of Brown University, who, like all scientists in their field, were plagued by the notorious and well-documented first night effect in lab science. That is: participants in lab studies all sleep horribly the first night, and it wreaks havoc on the reliability of experimental data.

Turns out what’s happening is that one hemisphere of a participant’s brain is significantly more active on night one in a new sleeping space. Consequently, response time to a “deviant sound” was quicker on the first night of the experiment. The team determined this by having sleeping subjects wiggle their fingers when the “deviant sound” was played.

Makes sense. It also explains why, when you stay at the same place again, that effect starts to wear off and you do get a better sleep.

“When we’re sleeping in a new environment and we don’t know how many predators are around,” Niels Rattenborg of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology told NPR, “it would make sense to keep half the brain more alert and more responsive to bumps in the night.”

So next time you’re half-awake in the arms of your snoring one-night stand, one bloodshot eye darting around their shitty apartment, maybe take a break from being mad at yourself for not sleeping well, and thank millions of years of evolution for making sure you’re not being devoured by wolves at that exact second.

And, quite obviously, it also explains why the best place to get a good night’s sleep is at home.




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  • dumbshit

    I’ve lost count of the number of “graveyard” shifts, I’ve done on what seems like “15 minute” battery charges. My ability to toss and turn, until just minutes before it’s time to throw the feet on the floor, is maturing, like my age. I wish I could identify the gremlin who is threatening.

  • Justme

    Or, you can do what I did. Slept like the dead, whilst the beloved stayed awake keeping an ear out for every sound that occurred.