Not feeling rested after your first night away from home is normal and has traditionally been associated to psychological factors or fatigue from having travelled the day before. This phenomenon is known as the First-Night Effect (FNE), and we now understand that this fatigue originates in the brain due to a habit likely acquired over the course of our evolution. Using neuroimaging techniques and sleep studies, the department of cognitive sciences, linguistics and psychology at Brown University in the United States demonstrated that half of our brain remains awake that first night, causing us to sleep more lightly. As a result, the possibility of waking up during the night is much greater, and this impacts our rest.
Scientists were inspired in their research by evidence that showed how some marine animals and certain species of birds have a mechanism that reduces their risk of being attacked by predators as they sleep. In light of this, it is possible that FNE could also be part of a similar mechanism in humans. The experiments showed that the first day that an individual sleeps in an unfamiliar environment, one of their cerebral hemispheres, typically the left, remains more alert than normal. The connection between both hemispheres is also more active, allowing individuals to wake up more quickly in case of danger. This has two counter-productive effects on our rest: firstly, we pay more attention to the visual and auditory stimuli that goes on around us. In other words, even the slightest light or noise could interrupt the sleep phase we are in, prevent us from entering a deeper sleep, or even wake us up. We notice the second effect when we climb into bed and feel slightly fidgety, a sensation caused by the brain’s need to keep us awake which makes it much more difficult to fall asleep. Both feelings are well-known to athletes who have to travel often for competition. In the case of first teams, their trainers require them to travel a few days early in order to reduce the effect of time change if there is one. Perhaps in the future they should also consider having athletes sleep two nights away instead of one, or travel on the same day of the event, in order to reduce the effects of FNE.
One of the key contributions of the study was learning how FNE affects athletes who are required to perform to the greatest of their capabilities after travelling. It was discovered that FNE alertness is drastically reduced or even disappears during the second night sleeping in the same unfamiliar environment, almost as though the brain simply shuts off its alarm after ensuring that the area is safe. The question for the trainer, however, is what should be done when their team has to travel and spend that first night in another location before going to the match and there is no option to sleep away for two nights. Athletes will clearly suffer from FNE, which will impair their performance.
We cannot break a habit that is acquired as a result of our evolution as human beings, but as Yuka Sasaki, the main author of the research project claims, the plasticity of our brains allows us to make use of resources that can partially shut down this monitoring system.
One option that Sasaki suggests is always choosing the same type of hotel or hotel chain so that the decorations in the rooms make us feel as though we are in a familiar environment; this is something that coaches may want to consider when they travel with their teams and want to lessen the effects of FNE. Following the recommendations in the Sleep Guide can also be helpful, which was developed by Barça specialists together with the AdSalutem Institute for young people who train with the club. Special attention needs to be paid to noises and lights, since the first night people will be more likely to notice them. As an additional measure for reducing the effects of FNE, be aware to keep the room temperature between 18 and 22ºC so that the body does not have to put in any additional effort to heat or cool itself. A shower in tepid water will lower body temperature and help the individual to fall asleep more quickly. It is a good idea to suggest that athletes bring along their own pillows because this will constitute a positive reinforcement, which is useful in associating the new place where they are sleeping with their normal bedroom. It is also essential that athletes perform relaxation and breathing techniques during the first night, preferably while lying in bed, because it will be easier for them to fall asleep while doing it once their brain receives the message to calm down.
Given that the study showed the human brain’s flexibility and capability to adapt to new situations, perhaps eliminating FNE is simply a question of training, implementing the proper techniques, and sheer determination.
1. “Night Watch in One Brain Hemisphere during Sleep Associated with the First-Night Effect in Humans” Masako Tamaki, Ji Won Bang, Takeo Watanabe, and Yuka Sasaki.