This is why you can't sleep well when traveling...

I’ve been out of it the last three days. I’m tired.

This always happens when I travel. Usually, I get a terrible night of sleep the first day, which causes me to load up on caffeine the second day, which causes me to have yet another night of restless sleep… and so on.

By the third or fourth day, I’m a walking zombie. 

In an attempt to fix this, I did some research. What I found was fascinating:

This tendency to sleep poorly on the first night in a new setting, known as the “first night effect,” is well documented, but the causes have remained unclear.

This phenomenon, though, might be an evolutionary advantage in disguise, a new study in Current Biology suggests. The grogginess may happen because one side of the brain forgoes sleep to act as a “night watch” capable of alerting us to potential dangers, a team from Brown University shows.

This makes perfect sense. All of us have a threat detection system in our brains. It’s constantly on the lookout for signs of danger–both physical and social. This threat detection system is, more or less, what a personality test like the Big 5 Inventory measures and expresses as the trait of Neuroticism.

Which makes me wonder: Are more neurotic people hit harder by the “first night effect”? I’m a total neurotic, which might explain why I get such intense first-night-grogginess.

This is also probably why so much popular sleep advice centers around reducing anxiety and creating a peaceful sleeping space:

  • “Make your bedroom clean and tidy”
  • “Have a relaxing pre-bedtime ritual”
  • “Get rid of all noises and distractions”

In our evolutionary environment, a messy or cluttered sleeping area could conceal enemies and predators (rival tribes, snakes, etc.), and noises and distractions were signals of unknown, potentially malevolant, creatures in the area. 

To create the optimal sleeping environment, then, we should all focus on making the bedroom we’re staying in feel as safe and protective as possible.

It’s what our paranoid brains need.

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Please excuse the quality of writing the last 3-4 days. I’ve been a bit groggy. It’ll get better, I promise 😬 

Jason Hreha