How Your Brain Is Keeping You Awake

Ducks are known to be pretty social animals.

They usually like to travel in large groups called paddlings.

And it’s not just because they enjoy each other’s company.

There’s something to be said for finding safety in numbers.

When they’re unsure of the safety of their surroundings, ducks shut off half their brains when sleeping…

Picture a row of ducks. The ones bookending both sides actually sleep with one eye open…

But the ducks situated in the middle? They shut their brains down completely and are able to reap the rewards of a fully restorative night of sleep.

And that’s something we surprisingly have in common with our feathered friends… Well, sort of.

First-Night Effect

New research out of Brown University helps explain why we tend to feel groggier when sleeping in a new place… whether we’re staying in a hotel, visiting family or out on a camping trip.

While we don’t literally sleep with one eye open, our brains do stay somewhat alert when sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings.

More specifically, the left hemisphere of our brains stays up in “night watch” mode while the right hemisphere is able to fall into deep sleep.

The problem is that both sides need the recuperative effects of deep sleep… hence the a.m. grogginess after the first night in an unfamiliar spot.

To be fair, we’ve known that folks aren’t particularly good at getting a good night’s sleep in a new place for a while.

Sleep studies conducted in labs usually throw away the data from the first night because the “first-night effect” causes such bad sleep and abnormal results.

It’s a condition that’s plagued and helped humanity ever since our ancestors slept in a new cave… and weren’t sure whether it was going to be safe.

But now we know why it happens.

Researchers took snapshots of subjects’ brains as they slept in new locations. And by homing in on slow-wave sleep (a measurement of the depth of sleep), they found that the left side of the brain was far less asleep than the right side.

In turn, the left part of the brain was also found to be much more sensitive to external stimuli. So random noises were much more likely to wake the body up… restarting the sleep pattern and reducing restorative sleep.

Settle In

So what can we do with this information? Is it just impossible to get a good night’s sleep when we’re visiting our relatives?

On the contrary. And it’s even easier than surrounding ourselves with ducks.

Because we know that the left side of the brain is constantly searching for something to spur us awake, we just need to limit our senses.

It sounds simple, but a sleep mask over the eyes and a pair of earplugs will make a huge difference in morning grogginess after sleeping in a new place.

A little bit of white noise can also be really helpful for blocking out the bumps in the night that wake us up.

This is preferable for a lot of people who aren’t able to fall asleep with earplugs in. And as an added bonus, this is even cheaper than a $1 pair of earplugs.

If you’ve got a smartphone or a tablet, you can download a white noise app for free (like this one). There are tons of them out there.

Another option is to search for an out-of-signal station on a clock radio. The static sounds can help soothe you to sleep while also helping block out sudden noises that might jar you awake.

And you don’t have to do this every night you’re sleeping in an unfamiliar place.

The research also showed that by day two in a new sleeping spot, the left brain’s sensitivity to external stimulation completely goes away.

And if you pair these sleep aids with melatonin, which helps to get your body ready for sleep, you’ll find yourself in a much better sleeping position.

Here’s to more restful and event-filled vacations from now on!

P.S. What sleep aids have you tried? Drop us a line here.

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