Inside the world of sleep and dreams - we visit the county’s DrEAMSLab

Dr Caroline Horton, Director of DrEAMSlab and senior lecturer in Cognitive Psychology at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln.
Dr Caroline Horton, Director of DrEAMSlab and senior lecturer in Cognitive Psychology at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln.
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US President Donald Trump has famously said that he can get by on just three to four hours sleep a night.

While on the campaign trail he said: “You know, I’m not a big sleeper. I like three hours, four hours, I toss, I turn, I beep-de-beep, I want to find out what’s going on.”

PhD student Anthony Bloxham with the results of Zoe's sleep study at DrEAMSlab at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln.

PhD student Anthony Bloxham with the results of Zoe's sleep study at DrEAMSlab at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln.

But according to sleep experts, poor sleep can lead to bad decision-making, have an impact on both our health and well-being, and affect the way our brains retain and process information.

It’s part of the research currently being carried out by PhD students at the DrEAMSLab at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln into just how much poor sleep can affect us - particularly in today’s non-stop tech world where we feel the need to be connected to our gadgets 24 hours a day.

They are inviting volunteers from across the county to take part in the research to help them delve more into the mysteries of sleep and dreams.

I visited the DrEAMSLab at the university to find out more about the work being done and took part in one of the pilot studies.

PhD student Vytautas Nastajus takes Zoe through a virtual reality programme at DrEAMSlab at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln.

PhD student Vytautas Nastajus takes Zoe through a virtual reality programme at DrEAMSlab at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln.

One of the ways that researchers at the lab are able to study sleep patterns is by inviting volunteers to take a nap in a room in the lab which has a proper bed made up. The volunteer can also wear special headgear which is basically a strap around the head with sensors which are worn against the forehead to pick up brain activity while you sleep.

Not being a person who is able to sleep in the daytime or a ‘napper’, the study I took part in involved me taking the headgear home to wear overnight.

Director of DrEAMSLab and senior lecturer in Cognitive Psychology at the university, Dr Caroline Horton, explained: “It is called the DrEAMSlab but dreaming is part of what we are looking at. The name stands for Dreams, Emotions, Associations and Memories in Sleep.

“We are interested in how sleep affects our performance and well-being. We are a research lab and conduct experiments that explore how people sleep normally. We do not wake people up normally.

Zoe Myall with headgear for sleep study at DrEAMSlab at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln.

Zoe Myall with headgear for sleep study at DrEAMSlab at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln.

“We look at how good sleep quality affects our ability to retain information. As part of the research we ask people about their dreams. That is not in a wacky way but in a way to get an idea of which memories are activated when we are asleep. Dreams are not entirely random but they are novel.”

The study I took part in involved me first listening to a presentation by PhD student Anthony Bloxham about a medical condition I previously had no knowledge about. I was then asked what I remembered from the talk. While I couldn’t remember everything, certain details stuck in my mind.

PhD student Vytautas Nastajus then took me through a virtual reality programme where I visited different rooms in a house and was asked to study the details. I then had to recall what I could remember.

The next morning I returned to the lab, having worn the headgear while I slept, to see again what I could remember of the presentation and the virtual reality programme.

Dr Horton said: “Virtual reality allows us to do the programming, creating the realities. We can control what people encounter to calculate how big it is on what people are learning and to see the effect on sleep. The reality we are creating is really immersive. We are trying to get an insight of what the brain is doing when we are asleep.

“Some places look at people in brain scanners which can cost thousands of pounds a night and it is extremely noisy. It is not easy to do that.

“We are trying to demonstrate that if you dream of something it improves your memory for it. We are convinced that if you have better sleep you have more memory.”

I think I normally sleep well but recently I’ve been waking up more in the night, whether that is because the nights have been warmer or because it’s lighter earlier in the mornings. The night I wore the headgear I did find it took me longer to get to sleep than usual but the results the next day showed that I had good periods of deep sleep, where the brains cells are firing and communicating, including REM (Rapid Eye Movement) which is associated with dreams.

I was asked again what I could remember of the tests I went through the day before. While I didn’t remember any dreams I had that night, I could still remember the details of the previous day’s tests and I felt there was more clarity in my memories.

According to Dr Horton, it is perfectly normal not to remember everything.

She said: “We really have very few memories that are episodic. In sleep we forget about the things that we do not need. Memory is goal directed. People think that they are remembering but each time they are changing it. We remember what we think people want to hear. It is healthy and functional not to remember everything. It is inefficient for our brains to remember something it doesn’t feel is important.”

○ It’s been said many times before but experts do believe that most of us need eight hours sleep.

Dr Horton said: “Not getting enough sleep is a public health crisis. People say they can get away on less sleep. It is a 24/7 connected world and sleep seems to interfere.

“REM in sleep helps us to process our emotional involvement. We are more likely to make risks if we do not have enough sleep.

“If you have less than six hours sleep a night it can be very damaging but if you are sleeping for longer than 10 hours you get the negativities of sleeping too little. The ideal length of sleep seems to be eight hours. We do not just mean to be in bed for eight hours, if it takes a good hour to get to sleep.”

And she believes napping is good if that’s what your body needs but it’s better to have a good nights’ sleep each night than struggling in the week then trying to catch up at the weekend.

There are also experts who are looking into a possible connection between poor sleep and conditions such as Dementia.

Dr Horton added: “Poor sleep is associated with almost every physical and emotional issue.”

If you are interested in taking part in the research contact: dreamslabresearch@gmail.com