Learning Lab

Why Can’t You Sleep On the First Night in a Strange Bed?

It never fails. You’re out of town at a conference or a corporate meeting and must give a presentation on an opening day.

But you’re not worried. You created stellar audio-visual materials.

You’ve practised your speech until you have it timed down to the second.

Your travel plans went surprisingly smoothly: no delays, plenty of room on the plane, and your transportation from the airport to the hotel could not be faulted.

So, now you’ve enjoyed a lovely meal. You’re feeling relaxed. You’re feeling good. All that’s left is to get a good night’s sleep, and you are golden. Tomorrow will be a breeze.

And . . . you can’t get to sleep. You toss. You turn. You get up, drink a glass of water, and go back to bed. You doze, you toss some more and turn some more. Every creak of the floorboards, every distant voice from the hallway, and you’re awake again. You doze some more. And then the alarm clock sounds, and you drag yourself, bleary eyed and exhausted, out of bed wondering what happened.

What was it? Everything was perfect. You were relaxed. You were tired. You weren’t worried in the slightest.

You’ve just encountered the first-night-in-a-strange-bed syndrome. Okay, I just made that name up, but it is a well-known phenomenon. Even people who claim they can sleep anywhere anytime often encounter this strange inability to sleep in a strange bed, at least on the first night.

Behavioural psychologists have long surmised that this may be the remnants of some primitive survival system, and recent findings by scientists may support this.

Brain scans of subjects showed that even if falling asleep at their usual time, on the first night in an unfamiliar location slow-wave activity in the left hemisphere of the brain was shallower than on other nights while the slow waves in the right hemisphere stayed consistent no matter what night it was. Also, on the first night, the longer the subject took to fall asleep, the bigger from normal this difference was.

[image_frame style=”shadow” align=”right” height=”428″ width=”300″]https://synapticpotential.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Insomnia.jpg[/image_frame]It was as if half of their brain was on guard while they slept.

We undergo several sleep cycles throughout a night–one cycle lasts for only about two hours—and only the initial sleep cycle was scanned, so it is unclear whether this task is always assigned to the left hemisphere of the brain or alternates between left and right, but one thing was a surprise to the scientists: the location of the active structures.

It seems that this guard-dog function is assigned to a network known as the default-mode network, and the reason for the surprise is that this system typically performs functions associated with looking inwards rather than outwards. You usually find activation of this system when you’re daydreaming, or planning for the future, or just generally feeling reflective or contemplative.

Unfortunately, if you must travel for work, it seems there is only one solution: persuade the boss to let you go a couple of days early! You could always claim it’s necessary because of a problem with your brain.

References:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-we-toss-and-turn-in-an-unfamiliar-bed/

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