Why You May Have Trouble Sleeping During Your First Night in a Hotel Room

T here you are: tossing and turning in the bed in your hotel room when you should be sound asleep — even though the bed is incredibly comfortable; the temperature of the room is perfect; you are well fed; and the room is dark and quiet. Blame it on the business meeting you have the following day. Blame it on the fact that you have to leave at 4:30 in the morning to catch your flight at the airport. Blame it on stress. Blame it on jet lag. Blame it on the fact that you are in a strange environment.

If you chose to blame your sleeplessness on the fact that you are in a strange environment, you might actually be blaming the correct cause, as half of your brain may be staying awake to keep watch, according to this article written by research associates Masako Tamaki, Ji Won Bang, Takeo Watanabe and Yuka Sasaki in Current Biology pertaining to a study conducted by them from the Laboratory for Cognitive and Perceptual Learning at Brown University, who discovered what goes on inside of the brain while a person sleeps in an unfamiliar place by tracking and measuring the brain activity with advanced neuroimaging scans during the deep sleep of 35 young and healthy people.

Why You May Have Trouble Sleeping During Your First Night in a Hotel Room

Evidence was found where during the first night in an unfamiliar place — such as a hotel room — the left hemisphere of the brain stays awake and on guard; while the right hemisphere of the brain sleeps. This is apparently a natural instinct observed in other animals, as sleep is when an animal — including a human being — is most vulnerable.

Fortunately, the left hemisphere of the brain usually does not stay awake for the entire night, as sleepers took seven to twelve minutes longer to fall asleep during the first night in a new bed when compared to during the second night in the same bed.

On the second night in the same strange environment, the left hemisphere typically no longer stays awake, as there is apparently no need to do so based on the experience — or lack thereof — of the first night.

The researchers also found that when they outfitted the participants of the study with earphones and played unfamiliar beeping noises at a high pitch, the left side of the brain exhibited a more significant response to those sounds than the right side of the brain — causing the individuals to wake up faster to the sounds during the first sleep session in an unfamiliar environment compared with the second session, which suggests more vigilance in that hemisphere.

Unanswered Questions

Researchers have already known that people tend to sleep poorly during the first night in sleep labs — to the point that data collected on the first night of a sleep study typically is not used — but this study raises a lot of unanswered questions.

For one, researchers do not yet know why they saw this effect in the left hemisphere of the brain and not in the right hemisphere.

It also does not answer situations where people fall asleep unexpectedly and with no problem in a strange environment — such as in a hammock under a palm tree in a tropical breeze during a sunset after dinner.

Can this be the reason why people of all ages tend to sleep better when they hold something familiar to them — a blanket, a pillow, a stuffed animal or a pet as four examples?

If you are a frequent traveler who is used to sleeping in hotel rooms, is it possible that the initial conclusion of this study would not affect you, as most hotel rooms are rather similar to each other?


This study would have been wasted on me.

As long as the bed is clean and comfortable, I personally have no problem sleeping in a different bed from my own. On the rare occasions where I have difficulty sleeping, it is either when something significant is on my mind; or it is when I wake up during the night and cannot return to sleep.

Even worse are those rare times where I worry so much about not being able to go back to sleep that I am ultimately not able to go back to sleep.

As I usually have songs playing — usually involuntarily — in my head most of the time, I can confirm that some of the creepiest songs to play at a low volume in the back of my head at 3:00 in the morning are Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys and My City Was Gone by The Pretenders — songs released in 1966 and 1984 respectively — and they are especially creepy when I wake up groggy in a strange place and momentarily do not know where I am at that moment.

By the way, I am referring to some of the instrumentation in those songs and not to the lyrics themselves, which get somewhat muddled and muffled when those songs play at a low volume in the back of my head; but I somehow do not mind the creepiness — which is bizarre in and of itself.

One song that I find incredibly calming and relaxing is Mr. Blue, a song released in 1959 by The Fleetwoods. It is such a quiet and mellow song that it practically qualifies as an adult lullaby. When that song goes through my head — or if I actually listen to it — I feel comfortable and can usually go right to sleep. No memory or familial connection is associated with the song, which was released years before I was born — I just happen to like it.

Another possible solution is to arrive a minimum of two nights prior to an important event so that you have a better chance of getting a good night’s sleep the night before the big day; but many frequent fliers — and some leisure travelers — may not have that kind of time or money to be able to afford to do that.

I certainly would not advocate the use of sleeping aids or other types of drugs or medication, as I do not believe in those measures unless absolutely necessary; and as a last resort.

Now, if those researchers can do a study as to why it is so difficult for many people to comfortably fall asleep while seated in the economy class cabin during a long flight — but I have a feeling you do not need research to know the answers to that particular question…

Photograph ©2014 by Brian Cohen.

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