Why Is It So Hard to Sleep in a New Place?

iStock
iStock

Maybe you’re away on a business trip and you’ve got a big presentation in the morning. Maybe it’s your first night in a new home after a long day hauling boxes. Whatever the circumstances, you could really use a good night’s rest—but, given that you're sleeping in a new place, that may be easier said than done. Now, a team of scientists at Brown University say they’ve found a cause for this first-night effect: constant, animal-like vigilance. They published their findings in the journal Current Biology.

Sleep is something of a puzzle for scientists. Most animals do it, but it’s not entirely clear why it’s necessary. In survival terms, it’s pretty inconvenient for an animal to be off its guard for several hours every day. But rather than evolving to live without rest, some animals have developed the ability to literally sleep with one eye open. Bottlenose dolphins, southern sea lions, domesticated chickens, and beluga whales are among species that practice unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS), in which just one half of the brain sleeps at a time.

You can see this yourself in a line of snoozing ducks: the duck at the end of the line will have its outward-facing eye open. That eye is linked to the brain hemisphere that’s still awake. That way, even in sleep, the sight of a predator could trigger alarms in the brain, cueing the duck to take action.

This may look like an angry pirate, but it’s actually a young house sparrow in USWS. Image credit: Hussain Kaouri via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

As you can imagine, this vigilant half-sleep is a real asset in dangerous and unpredictable environments. Unfortunately, your brain might count hotel rooms and new apartments as dangerous. That’s right: Scientists have found USWS in people. Or, rather, they’ve found what amounts to USWS Lite.

Sleep researchers are well aware of the first-night effect (FNE), and frequently throw out the results from a sleep study subject’s first night in the lab. Rather than working around the FNE, a team of researchers decided to identify its cause. They recruited 35 healthy volunteers and brought them into a sleep lab for two nights of sleep with a one-week break in between. The volunteers were hooked up to machines that measured their heart rates, blood oxygen levels, breathing, eye and leg movements, as well as activity in both sides of the brain.

The scientists focused on slow-wave activity (SWA), a type of brain behavior that can indicate how deeply someone is sleeping. They looked at SWA in four different brain pathways in both sleep sessions, tracking how sleep depth was affected by disturbances in the room.

They weren’t looking for differences between the brain hemispheres, but they found them. On the first night of sleep, subjects consistently showed more wakefulness in the left half of their brains. The left hemisphere was also more sensitive to strange (and thus potentially threatening) sounds. One week later, when the subjects returned to the sleep lab, there was more symmetry in the subjects’ brain activity, suggesting they had become accustomed to the now familiar environment. Their SWA showed equal levels of wakefulness, or lack thereof, in both brain hemispheres.

While the study results suggest we are participating in USWS, co-author Yuka Sasaki says in a press statement that "our brains may have a miniature system of what whales and dolphins have."

Sasaki noted that frequent travelers may subconsciously train their brains to bypass the FNE. Our brains are “very flexible,” she said. “Thus, people who often are in new places may not necessarily have poor sleep on a regular basis."

The team’s future experiments will include trying to shut off the FNE so people can get a better (first) night’s sleep. 

What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images
Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Why Do We Eat Candy on Halloween?

Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images
Jupiterimages/iStock via Getty Images

On October 31, hordes of children armed with Jack-o'-lantern-shaped buckets and pillow cases will take to the streets in search of sugar. Trick-or-treating for candy is synonymous with Halloween, but the tradition had to go through a centuries-long evolution to arrive at the place it is today. So how did the holiday become an opportunity for kids to get free sweets? You can blame pagans, Catholics, and candy companies.

Historians agree that a Celtic autumn festival called Samhain was the precursor to modern Halloween. Samhain was a time to celebrate the last harvest of the year and the approach of the winter season. It was also a festival for honoring the dead. One way Celtics may have appeased the spirits they believed still walked the Earth was by leaving treats on their doorsteps.

When Catholics infiltrated Ireland in the 1st century CE, they rebranded many pagan holidays to fit their religion. November 1 became the “feasts of All Saints and All Souls," and the day before it was dubbed "All-Hallows'-Eve." The new holidays looked a lot different from the original Celtic festival, but many traditions stuck around, including the practice of honoring the dead with food. The food of choice for Christians became "soul cakes," small pastries usually baked with expensive ingredients and spices like currants and saffron.

Instead of leaving them outside for passing ghosts, soul cakes were distributed to beggars who went door-to-door promising to pray for souls of the deceased in exchange for something to eat. Sometimes they wore costumes to honor the saints—something pagans originally did to avoid being harassed by evil spirits. The ritual, known as souling, is believed to have planted the seeds for modern-day trick-or-treating.

Souling didn't survive the holiday's migration from Europe to the United States. In America, the first Halloween celebrations were a way to mark the end-of-year harvest season, and the food that was served mainly consisted of homemade seasonal treats like caramel apples and mixed nuts. There were no soul cakes—or candies, for that matter—to be found.

It wasn't until the 1950s that trick-or-treating gained popularity in the U.S. Following the Great Depression and World War II, the suburbs were booming, and people were looking for excuses to have fun and get to know their neighbors. The old practice of souling was resurrected and made into an excuse for kids to dress up in costumes and roam their neighborhoods. Common trick-or-treat offerings included nuts, coins, and homemade baked goods ("treats" that most kids would turn their noses up at today).

That changed when the candy companies got their hands on the holiday. They had already convinced consumers that they needed candy on Christmas and Easter, and they were looking for an equally lucrative opportunity to market candy in the fall. The new practice of trick-or-treating was almost too good to be true. Manufacturers downsized candies into smaller, bite-sized packages and began marketing them as treats for Halloween. Adults were grateful to have a convenient alternative to baking, kids loved the sweet treats, and the candy companies made billions.

Today, it's hard to imagine Halloween without Skittles, chocolate bars, and the perennial candy corn debates. But when you're digging through a bag or bowl of Halloween candy this October, remember that you could have been having eating soul cakes instead.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER