Notice: On Thursday, Oct. 27, Jack Rodenfels, Marketing Manager for the Friday Center liveblogged the fourth installment of the “What’s the Big Idea?” lecture series from the Friday Center from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Every Thursday in October, UNC-Chapel Hill physicians and faculty shared their insights on the brain from a scientific, medical and philosophical perspective. The lecture’s theme was “Understanding the Mysteries of Sleep” and the lecturer was Bradley Vaughn, MD. The thoughts and opinions in the below liveblog are Jack’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Friday Center. Follow the liveblog below for updates throughout the lecture. 

Final thoughts: Sleep is vastly important to our health and well-being. Throughout the lecture, I was shocked by how nuanced sleep can be. So many body processes, attitudes, and mood are directly tied to sleep, or lack of sleep.

I couldn’t believe how detrimental sleep deprivation can be on an individual level, and how sleep deprivation may affect aspects of our lives we don’t even realize. One idea I never considered was how sleep deprivation affects others and our society as a whole. Dr. Vaughn did an excellent job of explaining this factor.

Dr. Vaughn took a highly scientific topic and did an admirable job of delivering his research in an easy-to-understand method, making it applicable while resonating with everyone in attendance. Throughout the evening, the audience listened with rapt attention to the concepts from Dr. Vaughn. With so many relevant points, the lecture attendees certainly have many new, enlightening aspects to ponder in their everyday sleep habits. Leaving the lecture, I certainly think of sleep different. Rather than a footnote, I plan to reconsider my sleep habits and amount of sleep to be a healthier, rested, and more productive member of society.

The next “What’s the Big Idea?” lecture series will begin April 2017. Stay tuned to the Friday Center website for more information on the theme and guest speakers.

8:20 p.m.: Dr. Vaughn finishes his lecture by answering a few questions from the audience. The questions include how sleepwalking occurs and why some people remember their dreams and some don’t.  After Dr. Vaughn answers the questions, he receives a standing ovation followed by the attendees filing out of the auditorium.

8:15 p.m.: Sleep deprivation is a massive issue and affects our lives in many ways including weight gain through consuming additional calories and the feeling of being drunk.

Sleep deprivation doesn’t just affect individuals. In the below video, Dr. Vaughn explains how sleep deprivation may affect others:


“Sleep deprivation across our society takes a toll,” says Dr. Vaughn. “There may be a short-time gain, but how we view sleep has a role in how we do in our own health and how we do across society.”

Some of the most devastating historical accidents were caused by sleep deprivation, including Chernobyl, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The average American adult sleeps 6.8 hours per night. Average hours of sleep per night for other notable jobs include:

  • Air traffic controllers – 4 hours
  • Railroad engineers – 4.6 hours
  • Truck drivers – 3.8-5 hours
  • Police officers – 6.2 hours
  • Firefighter – 5.1 hours

According to Dr. Vaughn, 28 percent of accidents are caused by sleep deprivation, with an average cost of $150 billion each year in the United States.

8:10 p.m.: There are many inherit benefits of sleep. In addition to being more alert and attentive, we remember more, and are in better moods after sleep. Other benefits of sleep include:

  • The clearing of unwanted substances from the body
  • Repairing muscles
  • Children’s growth
  • Realignment of the metabolism

How do you know if you are sleeping enough?

“If you wake up before your alarm 5 out of 7 mornings and do not get sleepy during the day, you are getting enough sleep,” according to Dr. Vaughn.

8:05 p.m.: Interesting applications of circadian rhythms in life:

  • In Major League Baseball (MLB), the circadian benefit is bigger than the home-field benefit.
  • Most football records are set on Monday Night Football and Sunday Night Football games, since bodies are most awake at that time.
  • Jeopardy is always filmed at 10 a.m., peak time for contestants. Contestants perform best at 10 a.m.

8:00 p.m.: What are some things that influence circadian rhythms? The rhythms are influenced by zeitgebers such as:

  • Bright light
  • Exercise
  • Food
  • Social interactions
  • Melatonin

All of these zeitgebers promote wakefulness, helping define circadian rhythms.

7:55 p.m.: Other organisms with an internal body clock:

  • Bats come out just before dark and go to bed just before light.
  • Butterflies are most active in the day when higher nectar-producing flowers are open.
  • Leaves of a mimosa tree open for sunlight and close when the sun sets.

Why do organisms have a circadian rhythm? Due to millions of years of evolution on Earth.

7:45 p.m.: Different organisms have different preferred times to sleep. Animals are driven to sleep by their body clock (also known as a circadian rhythm) and the length of time that they’ve been awake (homeostatic drive). The below video gives a quick rundown of the circadian rhythm of a human and how it influences sleep:

7:35 p.m.: Dr. Vaughn continues to make his point that sleep is a function of the brain. The rest of the body doesn’t sleep. Rather, the rest of the body follows what the brain does. As the chief conductor of our bodies, we aren’t more likely to sleep because our bodies are tired. We’re more likely to sleep because our brains are tired.


A human’s sleep cycle throughout the night.

During the night, we go through a variety of sleep cycles. Each sleep cycle lasts around 90 minutes.

Dr. Vaughn says there are three parameters that define sleep:

  1. Brain wave activity
  2. Muscle tone
  3. Eye movement

Napping and sleeping are two very different things. According to Dr. Vaughn, four 1-hour naps do not equal four hours of continuous sleep.

“Sleep is a song,” he says. “If you play a few notes over and over again it’s a disjointed song.”  – This refers to a nap.

“On the other hand, if the notes are played in succession, one after another, it sounds different, richer.”  – This refers to a night of sleep.

7:25 p.m.: Dr. Vaughn describes that studying someone’s sleep means using four of the five senses.

“We make sure not to use taste while gauging someone else’s sleep,” he says.


Studying sleep means having keen observations. Dr. Vaughn says that studying sleep is not a new phenomena. As early as 1895 blood pressure was tracked while patients slept, by Dr. Howell. He figured out that there were periods of increased blood pressure.

Howell was the first to note that sleep isn’t a passive process but an active one, with various processes occurring during sleep. He first indicated that sleep wasn’t a turning off of the body, but a transformation of the body into a different state.

I’ve never thought of sleep as a transformation of body. To me, sleep happens when everything is turned off in the body and mind. Now, thinking of sleep in this new way helps me realize the body is always functioning and processing, even in sleep.

7:20 p.m.: “In the medical world, if someone is completely still, we usually think they’re dead,” says Dr. Vaughn. “Working as a sleep doctor looks a lot different than other doctors.”


7:15 p.m.: Dr. Vaughn says that the four foundational questions dealing with sleep include:

  1. What is sleep?
  2. How do we sleep?
  3. How does sleep affect us?
  4. Why do we sleep?

I’m particularly intrigued by the last question. I know I sleep. I know it’s important. But I’m interested in the details of why it’s important. Dr. Vaughn says that the “why” can be the most difficult question to answer, but understanding the “why” is essential to fully grasping the importance of sleep and placing a priority on sleep in one’s life.

Sleep is defined as a “reversible active physiological state of relative decreased consciousness,” says Dr. Vaughn. Every mammal sleeps, but the amount of sleep needed for each animal varies. Humans need, on average, about 8 hours of sleep per night.


The amount of sleep needed varies greatly by mammal.

7:10 p.m.: “Sleep isn’t just something we do passively,” says Dr. Vaughn. “It’s an important action of being. It’s an important part of being human.”

Dr. Vaughn’s goals for tonight’s lecture are as follows:

Dr. Vaughn outlines some of his goals for the lecture.

Dr. Vaughn outlines some of his goals for the lecture.

After Dr. Vaughn talks through some of his goals for the lecture, he cracks a smile. “We’re all interested in sleep, in lots of different ways,” he says.

Theres lots of different ways to sleep.

There’s lots of different ways to sleep.

7:00 p.m.: Dr. Vaughn takes the stage and begins his lecture, “Understanding the Mysteries of Sleep.” Dr. Vaughn is a Professor of Neurology, Adjunct Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Adjunct Professor in Allied Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the Medical Director for the UNC Sleep Center and has practiced in sleep medicine for over 25 years.

He has served on regional and national executive boards, committees, and task forces within the areas of sleep and neurology. His primary research focuses on the overlap of sleep and epilepsy, and he is involved in teaching sleep medicine at multiple levels in the sleep and neurology communities.

6:45 p.m.: I’ve arrived at the Friday Center and look forward to learning more about the thing I spend nearly a third of my life doing — sleeping. Grumman Auditorium in the Friday Center is filling up and nearly 200 people are expected for tonight’s lecture, the last in the “What’s the Big Idea?” lecture series.

Grumann Auditorium is filing up for the final installment of the "What's the Big Idea?" lecture series on Thursday, Oct. 27.

Grumman Auditorium is filling up for the final installment of the “What’s the Big Idea?” lecture series on Thursday, Oct. 27.