Have you ever arrived in a hotel room after a long flight and, despite being exhausted, found it painfully difficult to fall asleep? And even once you managed to get to sleep, did you still wake frequently in the night, or too early in the morning, feeling groggy and desperate?
Researchers have long known about this phenomenon in an experimental setting, terming it the “first-night effect”. Sleep study participants often sleep poorly during their first experimental session in a new environment and sleep quality usually improves dramatically on the second night.
So what happens in the brain when people sleep in a new place?
A study, published in Current Biology, found that poor sleep in an unfamiliar setting may be linked to an important function of the brain to protect the sleeper from potential danger.
A human brain is divided into two hemispheres, the left and right. Some parts of the left hemisphere are associated with language processing and some parts of the right with spatial information processing, or processing of the surrounding environment.
In the study, while participants slept, they were presented with two different beep sounds through earphones. One sound was of a high, unusual frequency, while the other was an ordinary frequency sound.
Most of the time, the participants would hear the normal sound, but once in a while, they would be presented with a rare sound.
The study found the lighter-sleeping (left) hemisphere was more alert than the right when presented with an unusual sound. It actually responded strongly to unusual sounds but not as strongly to ordinary sounds. Again, these effects were only seen during the first sleep session and not the next.
Like some animals, the interhemispheric brain asymmetry that happens on the first night in humans might act as a security guard to protect them from danger.
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24 May 2016