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Sleeping in a New Place? Your Brain is Keeping Watch!

January 28, 2020

 Why you don't sleep well somewhere new on the first night

If you travel frequently for work or leisure, you may have found that you battle to fall asleep properly on your first night in a new environment. Chatting to your friends, you may also have learned that this ‘first-night’ syndrome is something most people experience throughout their lives; whenever we sleep somewhere new it’s like our brains just won’t shut down properly to allow us to rest sufficiently. The result is poor, interrupted sleep that can leave you feeling drained and irritable. 

It turns out this inability to sleep sufficiently on the first night in a new environment is not just an anecdotal occurrence, it’s been verified by science! Scientists have noticed something called ‘unilateral hemispheric sleep’ in certain birds and marine mammals. Essentially, the term refers to the ability of the brain to keep one hemisphere alert while the other sleeps. The most obvious assumption in terms of the origin of this trait lies in survival. In birds, in particular, it was found that unilateral sleep would kick in when a bird found itself resting at the outskirts of the group, where they were more likely to be set upon by predators than if they were in the middle of the sleep huddle. 

To test whether this hypothesis was sound in humans as well, a series of studies were conducted on a group of 30+ healthy adults without any history of sleep disorders. This included: 

  1. Detecting the depth of sleep of each participant using advanced neuroimaging techniques that combine MEG and MRI to measure changes in the brain's magnetic field, as well as measuring structural brain information and general sleep status. 

  2. Presenting the sleeping test participants with two different beep sounds through headphones - one of an ordinary frequency; the other of a high, unusual frequency. This test was designed to see how the two hemispheres reacted when presented with each sound and to ascertain whether increased vigilance would mean that people would ake and react faster to unusual sounds. 

The conclusions were that Interhemispheric asymmetry in sleep depth occurs for the first night in a new place, that this asymmetry occurs in the default-mode network. In addition, it was ascertained that the less-asleep hemisphere shows increased vigilance in response to deviant stimuli, which supports our assertion that one brain hemisphere may work as a night watch during sleep in a novel environment. 

There you have it - the skinny on how and why your brain keeps watch when you sleep somewhere for the first time. Keep an eye on the blog in the coming weeks and months for more interesting info on the science of sleep. In the meantime, we invite you to visit us in-store to find out more about our Comfort Solutions Lab® and the pressure-point technology that allows us to make custom mattress recommendations for every customer that uses it. 

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