This sleep researcher explores the science behind dreams

Posted by for Careers

Work/Life is Stylist’s regular column about the professional routines of successful women. Here, sleep researcher, Dr Caroline Horton, takes us through her one-day diary, from morning latte to lights-out.

Dr Horton, 37, is the director of the DrEAMSLab research centre at Bishop Grosseteste University. She lives in Lincoln with her partner and two daughters.

MY ALARM GOES OFF…

It doesn’t. I wake naturally at 6.15am. As a sleep researcher, I never use an alarm clock because disrupting your sleep is bad for the body. The first thing I do is write down as much as I remember from my dreams to see if any part is familiar from waking life. That might be people, places, actions, emotions or sensations. We score each characteristic out of nine and statistically analyse them. The point is to find out if we can predict what we will dream about, which will allow us to profile the brain’s processing during sleep.

I’M RESPONSIBLE FOR…

Exploring the many functions of sleep and dreams and how they affect memory and wellbeing.

I GOT THE JOB…

After studying psychology. I wanted to apply scientific research to dreams to make the subject more robust. When I started out there wasn’t much research into sleep, but that field has exploded because we are increasingly living in a 24-hour accessible world and technology disrupts our sleep and tampers with our body’s natural responses.

Dr Caroline Norton Sleep researcher
The lab runs various sleep experiments.

MY TYPICAL DAY…

Starts at 9.30am when I sort out my many tasks in a colour-coded planner. Most days there will be meetings with colleagues or PhD students I’m helping. I have my own office but will go to the lab to collect or analyse data. Participants sleep in the lab as part of studies, so it’s a quiet space.

At the moment I’m exploring hyper-associativity. That’s the way the brain structures memories and thoughts during REM sleep, for example, how your mum can morph into your best friend in your dreams. This research will be written up for academic journals but I also do public engagement work such as talks or writing that encourages good sleep hygiene.

For lunch, I’ll eat a sandwich during a meeting or at my desk. I’m most creative between 3pm and 6pm, so I give myself time for writing in the afternoon. I finish at 5.15pm and go to pick the kids up.

WHEN I’M TIRED OR STRESSED I…

Record voice notes on my phone to sort through my thoughts. It’s similar to the brain dump we do at night: the more we get out in the day the freer we are for creative thinking when we’re asleep.

Sleep researcher data on computer
Analysing data and writing reports are key parts of the job.

MY GO-TO SNACK AT WORK IS…

A cup of tea. Even as a sleep expert I drink caffeine, but I stop at 1pm.

MY MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT…

Was in 2017 when I delivered a lecture on dreaming at The Royal Institution. It was a moment of realisation that people were listening to what I had to say.

MY WORST WORK HABIT IS…

Taking tea breaks when I should be working.

AFTER WORK…

I’ll take the kids to Rainbows or swimming then have a family dinner. I’ll finish off emails or read and review journal articles then at 9pm I stop working and relax by searching for my dream house on Rightmove. We tell people to stop looking at screens an hour before bed but in reality I give myself 20 minutes. I’m so tired that natural exhaustion is enough to send me to sleep. I get into bed at 10.15pm and I’ll be asleep by 10.30pm.

My Plan B: saxophonist

When I was 16, I truly thought that I was going to be a professional musician. It was my life at the time and I just assumed it would take me to a world of music. I can still play, but I don’t practise often.

Photography: Jason Bye

Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy

Share this article

Recommended by Chloe Gray