Why We Sleep Badly on Our First Night in a New Place – The Atlantic

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“It’s very exciting to see that researchers have now found something similar in humans,” says Rattenborg. “It seems reasonable to speculate that, as in ducks and seals, this is an adaptive response that provides us with some protection when sleeping in novel environments, wherein we have limited information about potential threats.”

Lino Nobili from Niguarda Hospital in Milan adds that these results fits with a “relatively new view of sleep” as a patchwork process, rather than a global one that involves the whole brain. Recent studies suggest that some parts can sleep more deeply than others, or even temporarily wake up. This might explain not only the first-night effect but also other weird phenomena like sleepwalking or paradoxical insomnia, where people think they’re getting much less sleep than they actually are.

But other sleep scientists are more skeptical. Luigi Degennaro from Sapienza University in Rome derided the small numbers of volunteers, as well as the team’s methods. For example, rather than focusing on the default mode network (DMN) from the off, he says they should have looked at all brain regions where slow-wave activity differs between the left and right halves, and then checked if these corresponded to the DMN or other networks. He also says that the team needed to account for factors like handedness or gender, which could have contributed to asymmetric brain activity, beyond any hypothetical night-watch effect.

Along similar lines, Vladyslav Vyazovskiy from the University of Oxford wants to know if the rooms had asymmetric sources of light or sound, or if people slept on one side or the other. “Was the asymmetry related to the environment or sleep posture in any way?” he wonders.

But Sasaki doubts that such factors are important. In the latter experiments, the volunteers used earbuds, so any sounds came from inside their ears rather than from some speaker in the room. And throughout the study, “the asymmetry only occurs on the first night,” she says, while other factors like handedness and gender didn’t change.

The study’s small sample size is a real weakness though, and perhaps an unavoidable one given how expensive brain-imaging techniques can be. To confirm the night watch hypothesis, Sasaki now wants to use weak electric currents to shut down the left default mode network to see if people sleep faster in new environments. That would certainly support her idea that this region is behind the first night effect.  

It won’t help people sleep better in new places, though. To do that, Sasaki tries to stay in the same hotel when she travels, or at least in the same chain. “I’m flying to England tomorrow and staying at a Marriott,” she says. “It’s not a completely novel environment, so maybe my brain will be a little more at ease.”

Why We Sleep Badly on Our First Night in a New Place – The Atlantic