The first night effect, or why your brain doesn’t like changes

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Joanna Sosnowska 2 minutes read

Ever wondered, why you don’t sleep well in new surroundings? Why every new sound and change in the environment may suddenly jar you out of sleep leaving you restless? To find the culprit, look no further than your brain.

This may happen in a place foreign to you or right in your bedroom when you, for example, buy a new mattress. In fact, this phenomenon is so common, scientists call it  the “first night effect.”

According to research published in “Current Biology,” our brain stays wakeful in new and unfamiliar environments – at least for the first night. Scientists tested this in a sleep lab. During the study, neuroimaging techniques and polysomnography were used on test subjects to get to know more about the phenomenon. With electrodes connected to their bodies, they went to sleep and throughout the night scientists would play beeping sounds into their ears and then monitor the responses.

The results showed that the left hemisphere reacted strongly to sound, while the right side of the brain remained less affected. This is because the left hemisphere is responsible for staying vigilant. Consequently, sounds played near the left ear would wake the subjects up more often.

But this took place only during the first night of the study. During the second night, the subjects’ awareness was decreased. The results suggest that the human brain may be in some way similar to that of birds or whales. These animals are able to sleep with one hemisphere set on alert. Until recently, it was widely thought, that the human brain always “switches off” while sleeping.

This makes sense. Back in the days when our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived on the Pleistocene savanna and often fell prey to animals, sleeping with half the brain aware and able to react quickly to sudden threats seemed reasonable.

Remember, anything can cause the first night effect. It might be water dripping from the faucet, a new pillow or an unfamiliar place.

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So, what can you do to try and avoid the first night effect? Next time try to:

  • be more picky – when choosing a hotel, double check if the area is quiet enough for you (the comment section should be very helpful)
  • if it’s possible, choose a room similar to yours
  • bring your pillowcase or a sleep mask
  • take a bath to relax
  • if you changed something in your bedroom (like the mattress or a pillow), you can try a sleep mask or earplugs to at least limit external stimuli

And look on the bright side, the second night in new surroundings should be much better!

Reclaim your night and start your day full of energy. Sleep with Nightly tonight