Have you ever felt like you were ‘half-awake or only half asleep’ all night? Me too. It’s so frustrating, especially knowing that you have a big day ahead and want to be feel sharp and well rested. Perhaps you don’t want to miss a moment of your vacation or there’s an important conference you’re excited about.
As it turns out, half of your brain can sleep while the other half stays awake, according to sleep scientist Masako Tamaki and her colleagues at Brown University and reported in Current Biology*. They found that this usually happens when sleeping the first night in a new place, like a hotel, friend’s house, or while camping. The second night is much better.
It’s our brain’s attempt to protect us by going into survival mode. What happens is that the right half your brain sleeps while the left half stays alert, standing guard. How strange is that?
Scientists measured the slow-wave activity of the brain, something that occurs during deep sleep. They measured brain activity during light sleep by first playing a tone and then a different tone was played. Surprisingly, the brain reacted to the variation in sound only on the left side of the brain – the right side stayed asleep.
Next, they played a sound loud enough to awaken someone. They found that when it was transmitted into the right ear, the subjects in the experiment woke up faster than if it was sent to the left ear. The right ear is associated with the left side of the brain.
It stands to reason that it would be the left side of the brain that stays on duty since it is known to be objective, analytical, and rational and would be more prone to be protective whereas the right side is best at intuition and abstract thinking. Could this phenomenon be at play when sleeping in an unsafe neighborhood or household? What about when having to keep an ear out for a child or sick person. More studies are needed.
Sleeping ‘half-way’ is involuntary and the brain’s way to keep you alert enough to save yourself if something bad happened and most likely associated with the flight-fight-freeze response to stress. Because of this, scientists think there’s not much you can do about it other than to accept it rather than letting it bother you. Some suggest going two nights ahead of your big day since it’s so hard to sleep that first night.
Here are my suggestions:
- Make the room feel familiar and safer to you, tricking the brain into sleeping better. Try using a familiar scent – lavender is calming and aids sleeping. If you’re used to sleeping with a fan whirling away, bring one with you. Using your own pillow makes sense too.
- Try yoga nidra. It’s a comprehensive practice done lying down to go far beyond deep relaxation and mindfulness to a place of natural peace and quiet that is tremendously restful. Along with being a special type of meditation to increase uplifting levels of awareness, it can also be practiced at bedtime as a sleep aid. Layers of stress are cleared out so they don’t follow you to bed and disturb sleeping. In fact, while not a substitute for actual sleep, one hour of yoga nidra practice is equivalent to 4 hours of sleep. This is due to the types of brain waves experienced along the way. Proven relaxation skills, specialized breathing techniques, guided imagery, and mindfulness are systematically used. Learn more about yoga nidra here
Use a yoga nidra recording. See below for recommendations. Download it to your listening device, put it on airplane mode, and listen by putting the ear buds or the device itself under your pillow. It will transmit right through your pillow and not disturb your sleep partner.
- Use a mudra. They are yoga positions for the hands. Curl your fingers into a fist. On the same hand, touch the tips of the thumbs to the tips of the first finger to form a circle. Rest your hands with your palms pointing down. It helps bring on sleep and reduces stress by promoting a sense of safety and security. Learn more about mudras here.
- Breathe slowly and smoothly. To calm your nervous system, breathe in to the count of four or five and then breathe out for five to ten. When you get distracted, gently go back to focusing on your breathing.
- Use the Moon Breath to calm your bodymind and brain by combining a mudra with breathing. Bend your index and middle finger of your right hand to your palm, leaving your ring and little finger softly extended. Softly press your right thumb to your right nostril and inhale through your left nostril. Next, release your right thumb and press your ring finger to your left nostril while exhaling. In other words, in left / out right / in left / out right and so on. Learn more about this and other practices in Yoga Meditations: Timeless Mind-Body Practices for Awakening (WPA, 2005)
- Follow the guidelines for good sleep hygiene. Here’s the Mayo Clinic’s 7 tips for doing so. Read How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep – The Ultimate Guide. It’s excellent.
So even if you can’t sleep as soundly as you might like due to your brain’s insistence on staying half-awake, at least you now understand the reason why. The above suggestions may lull you to sleep, and if they don’t, you will at least make use of the time in a positive, productive way.
Resources: Yoga Nidra for Complete Relaxation & Stress Relief by Julie Lusk (NHP 2015)
Yoga Nidra: Guided Meditations for Relaxation & Renewal (Health Journeys 2016)
Julie Lusk, MEd, E-RYT 500, has more than 35 years of expertise in stress relief, yoga, relaxation training, guided imagery, and meditation as an international author, recording artist, and workshop leader. Julie is the author of Yoga Nidra for Complete Relaxation and Stress Relief, Yoga Meditations, two volumes of 30 Scripts for Relaxation, Imagery and Inner Healing, and Desktop Yoga®. Her CDs include Wholesome Relaxation, Power of Presence, Blue Moon Rising, and many others. Learn more at WholesomeResources.com