First-Night Effect: A Well-Known Nuisance for Humans Abroad

Holidays! Time to get away from school or work and leave the daily grind behind oneself when you part on a holiday trip. Sounds great, right?

Sure it does—but there is a catch for many people, including me. I seem to sleep less well when I’m not in my bed. For a couple of months now I’ve tracked my sleep using an app on my smartphone. It gives me a scoring per night, but it also analyzes trends. So for instance, when I’m not at home (checked via GPS), I sleep less well, especially on the first few nights. I travel for family and work reasons, which didn’t make a difference; I lost about 10% of sleep quality overall.

Tossing and turning in a hotel ... you now know that's "FNE"!

Tossing and turning in a hotel? That might be the “First-Night Effect”!

That’s nice, of course, but what does science say about it? Awhile ago, Medical News Today reported on a study where this First-Night Effect was analyzed. (It even has its own acronym: FNE!) For instance, I learned that sleep researchers discard the first night from studies of other sleep-related phenomena, because it isn’t representative for the patient. An odd phenomenon indeed, but why does it happen?

This new research was led by Yuka Sasaki at Brown University, and found the following results. A first result showed that people were more sensitive to sound, and therefore woke up more quickly during the night. That seems understandable, but the second result was more surprising: there is a left and right brain imbalance. The left brain was less asleep than the right one, and the more there was an imbalance, the less well a person slept that night.

Having such an imbalanced brain seems a disadvantage, but the study cites birds and dolphins, both of which are able to let only their left or right side sleep and keep the other one active to guard against predators and other dangers. It’s not exactly the same (and why only the left brain?), but a third experiment showed that subjects were able to signal better and more quickly when they heard a sound in their first night than on subsequent nights.

The reasoning here is that when we’re in a new, unfamiliar environment, sleeping less would have an evolutionary benefit, namely being on one’s guard and anticipating possible predators. It still would be nice to be on one’s guard on subsequent nights, but maybe sleeping somewhere unusual calls back this prehistoric mechanism back into life? In any case, really fascinating research. As the article concludes, it’s new research and only in its infancy, but I sure hope there is some follow-up on this.

About Bruno Van de Casteele

Philosopher by education, IT'er by trade. Allround Armchair Skeptic, History Enthusiast, Father of Three. Twitter @brunovdc Personal website:
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4 Responses to First-Night Effect: A Well-Known Nuisance for Humans Abroad

  1. Jeff Grigg says:

    Strange; I’ve always felt that I sleep better when traveling. (But then I’m strange, aren’t I? 😉 And I guess this comment of mine illustrates one of the problems of anecdotal “evidence.” My feeling is based on entirely subjective “observation” and memory, without any attempt at objective measurement.

    • James says:

      I have no trouble sleeping in ‘strange’ bed so long as it is comfortable and there is no extra noise – all variables. in fact, if the bed meets these criteria I think I sleep better! I think it is because there are more distractions in my house, including a lot of house dust – all those books and bric-a-brac do it – which makes me sometimes sneeze, not to mention cats and daughter who occasionally wake me up.

      But I suggest the reason most people don’t sleep so well in new locations is the prehistoric need to guard against new threats, in
      the shape of predators and other tribes.

  2. Michelle says:

    For me, it seems completely dependent on the bed.

    Itchy sheets? Forget it.
    Rock-hard mattress? Nope.
    Single, flimsy pillow? Absolutely not.

    Maybe by the second night I can do better under these circumstances, but the first night is always a sleepless one in a new, uncomfortable place.

  3. Juergen Ludwig says:

    Could we perhaps widen the scope ,or even have an entire new episode on jetlag.
    Flying West to Asia hardly gives me a proem ,coming back is an entire diff e rent animal.I live in Zombie land cor up to 6 weeks before I can sleep normal again.Is that ( or am I weird)?


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