One pet peeve I have is when people use the word “brain waves” without really knowing what they are. A lot of people into meditation talk about “brainwaves”, but probably couldn’t answer the question “what in the brain is actually waving?”.
Most people understand that brainwaves have something to do with the electrical activity of the brain, but that’s usually as far as the comprehension goes.
Reading this article thoroughly might be more important than you think. Understanding some of the basics of your brain and brain wave states is very useful to you and how you choose to manage your day.
By understanding how your brain goes in and out of certain brainwave states, you can learn to take advantage of each state — you’ll know when to be productive, when to be creative, and you’ll know the basics behind restful sleep.
Nevertheless, it never ceases to amaze me how some people prefer to go through life without understanding some of the most basic functions of their own body, let alone their consciousness. But I digress…
What are brain waves?
When I first heard the term “brainwave” I assumed that it had something to do with the electrical signals in the brain, but I never gave a second thought as to what was actually waving.
All brain cells communicate via electrical signals. Your brain contains about 100 billion neurons, well over the number of stars in our galaxy. Each neuron is connected to about 10,000 other neurons, making for about 100 to 500 trillion neuron-to-neuron connections in the brain.
Our current technology cannot see what’s happening at the neuron level. They’re just too small, and there’s just too many of them. However, our technology can see overall patterns of brain activity.
We can get a sense of how many neurons inside the skull are firing at any given moment.
And what we find is that the overall brain activity has a pulse, a beat — just like your heart. Except unlike your heart, the brain pulses very quickly — anywhere from 3 times per second to 100 times per second.
Think of your brain activity like a flickering light bulb. That “flicker” is what is meant by the term “brainwaves”.
These brain pulses, or brainwaves, happen at a variety of speeds. During deep sleep, for example, the brain pulses about 3 times per second. During high-focused thinking, the brain might pulse as much as 50 times a second.
Different brainwave frequencies have been shown to correspond to different “states of mind”. Brainwave frequency seems to correspond to a spectrum of subjective experience.
Slow brainwaves feel more relaxing and introspective. Fast brainwaves can be a sign of concentration or stress.
Although brainwave frequencies exist across a wide range, we generally classify them into 5 groups (from slow to fast): delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma.
Delta brainwaves have a frequency of about 4 pulses or less per second, as if the brain is breathing slowly and heavily.
The brain generally only enters the delta state during the deepest stages of sleep, appropriately known as “slow-wave sleep”.
Theta brainwaves are associated with dreaming and REM-stage sleep and sometimes light sleep. This is where brain activity pulses anywhere from 4 to 7 times per second.
But theta also occurs several times throughout the day.
If you’ve ever “zoned out” while driving or otherwise went on mental “auto pilot”, that means you entered theta.
Likewise, if you’ve ever gotten into the “flow” while jogging, that’s also theta. Deep meditation is another example.
Theta can be used for creative flow states, where ideas seem to come effortlessly. Theta is also exploited in hypnosis as well as several accelerated learning programs.
Alpha brainwaves have a frequency of 7 to 13 pulses per second.
The alpha wave state is a sign of deep relaxation while awake. Like theta, it can be used in hypnosis and accelerated learning.
Simply by closing your eyes, your brain starts to generate more alpha brain waves.
Beta brainwaves have a frequency of 13 to 40 pulses per second. The beta wave state is considered the most normal state of mind. It’s probably the state you’re in right now. As you read these words, your brain activity is “pulsing” at a rate of around 20 pulses per second.
If you’ve ever felt a lack of energy you couldn’t quite control, it may be due to insufficient beta activity. Although the beta state is considered “normal”, it’s fundamentally important for everyday mental focus and energy levels.
Depression and insomnia have been linked to insufficient beta states.
Gamma brainwaves have a frequency of over 40 pulses per second. It’s a rarer state of mind, and occurs during problem solving or even fear. It’s associated with enhanced perception and a high level of consciousness. Obtaining a stress-free gamma state is perhaps one of the greatest feelings imaginable. It’s a state of crystal-clear mental lucidity.
Altered States of Consciousness
It is often said that any of the brainwave states outside of beta are considered “altered states of consciousness.” Intentionally changing your brainwave frequency out of beta is a practice that’s over a thousand years old.
Your brainwave frequency can be changed in many different ways. Deep meditation can lower your frequency to the alpha and theta states, and sometimes even increase the frequency to beta states. Many drugs such as alcohol also alter the frequency.
In recent years, brainwave entrainment, or brainwave synchronization, has become popular. You’ve probably heard of it, but do you really understand how it works?
Entrainment is a fairly simple concept to comprehend. Entrainment is seen everywhere in physics.
For example, imagine you and a friend are on a standing on a trampoline. Imagine that both of you start bobbing up and down without your feet leaving the trampoline. Naturally at first, your up and down motions will occur either faster or slower than your friend’s. Yet because you are both on the same trampoline, it will only be a matter of seconds that both of you are bobbing up and down at exactly the same rate in perfect sync with each other.
Why does this happen? According to the laws of physics, it’s sometimes too much work for two “waves” to be out of sync. On the trampoline it requires extra force on your part to bob up and down at a different frequency than your friend. So naturally, you both sync up without even thinking about it.
This happens often in nature. Here are more examples:
- When several women live together for a while their periods start to happen at the same time. For whatever reason, it appears that the menstrual cycle is capable of being entrained.
- A species of firefly found in China has been shown to gather in huge groups and blink in sync. While each firefly has its own “natural” blinking frequency, it can be influenced by the blinking frequency of nearby fireflies. When thousands of fireflies gather in one location, it only takes a few seconds for all of the blinking to become entrained. It then looks like one big blinking organism.
- One study showed that when two people are in the same room, their brainwaves and heartbeats become entrained — that is, their brainwaves become matched up in frequency
So now that you understand the concept of entrainment, we can begin to understand the basic premise behind brainwave entrainment technology.
Binaural beats are the most popular form of brainwave entrainment. Many meditation CDs have them in the background.
Say you wanted to enter the alpha state for some relaxation. Could you just create a 7 Hz audio tone and listen to it on headphones? Nope. The lowest key on the piano is 27.5 Hz. Your ear can’t hear audio tones below about 20 Hz.
One trick to get your brain to “hear” 10 audio pulses per second or lower is to use a trick called “binaural beats”.
The above picture explains binaural beats perfectly: The left headphone plays a 500 Hz tone, the right a 510 Hz tone. By mixing the two together your brain perceives the difference — a 10 Hz tone. Viola — now you have an audio pulse going at “alpha frequency” and your brainwaves will try to slow down to match up.
Result: you feel calm and relaxed.
Brainwave entrainment CDs don’t just use alpha — different programs will use a variety of frequencies.
Brainwave entrainment programs that help you fall asleep, for example, will start off with alpha entrainment and slowly dip down to theta and then delta.
Other programs might promise improved concentration and focus, meaning they probably use beta frequencies.
One last fact worth mentioning. Although this is a bit of a “side note” it’s very interesting.
Your brain is never wholly in a single state at any given time. Different parts of your brain might be firing faster than others. While working on a math problem, the “problem solving region” of your brain will enter fast beta and possibly gamma states while the rest of the brain paces along at a steady alpha/beta rate.
The left and right hemispheres as well tend to march to different drummers.
Brainwave synchrony measures just how well coordinated the different parts of your brain are. A brain in which all its neurons tend to fire at the same frequency would be highly synchronous.
Highly synchronous brains have been shown to correspond to states of well-being and happiness.
Asynchronous brains have been shown to correspond to ADD, schizophrenia, depression and other conditions.
Others studies have shown that as the brain ages, its neural activity becomes less synchronous.
Interesting Facts About Brainwaves
1. Trained musicians experience states of gamma while listening to music. While non-musicians do not.
2. Although delta waves usually correspond to the unconscious state of deep sleep, highly experienced mediators have been shown to attain conscious awareness during the delta state.
3. Using a cell phone increases alpha activity in the brain. Studies have even shown that using a cell phone on, say, your left ear, will increase alpha activity most predominately in the brain regions on the left side.
4. Cell phone usage close to bedtime has been linked to mild insomnia.
5. Doing brain exercises during the day has been shown to increase delta brainwave synchrony during slow-wave sleep at night.
6. Delta frequencies have been shown to increase production of the hormones DHEA and melatonin. DHEA is a precursor to testosterone, perhaps your body’s most potent energizer hormone (for both men and women). This is one of the many reasons why high quality deep sleep increases feelings of natural energy and vitality during the day.
7. Your brain naturally cycles through the brainwave states during the day. Every 90 minutes or so, your brain will require a break and slow down its activity, possibly entering alpha or even theta states. This cycle is known as the ultradian rhythm, or basic rest and activity cycle (BRAC).
8. Alpha and theta states help reset sodium/potassium balance in the brain — without proper sodium/potassium balance, neurons can’t fire.
Tips to Making the Most of Your Brain
Now that you understand brainwaves, how they work, and how they affect our states of consciousness, you can follow these tips to make the most of your daily routine:
1. Listen to your body and take mental breaks when your mind starts to wander or daydream. This is often a sign that your brain is reaching the end of the BRAC and simply needs a quick break in alpha before returning to beta. By forcing your brain to stay in beta without a break, you will run into a mental burnout.
2. Avoid cell phone usage before bedtime. Also, turn off cell phones while you sleep. Your brain needs to enter delta states, and cell phones will encourage your brain to stay in alpha. With a cell phone on in the room, your sleep quality will be dampened, even if by just a tiny amount.
3. To maintain high levels of focus and concentration (beta & gamma) during the day, your brain needs rejuvenating periods of delta and theta at night. Be sure to get high quality sleep.
4. Consider using pzizz for daytime naps or mental breaks — it contains binaural beats to help your brain dip into the rejuvinating alpha and theta states, which helps reset the sodium/potassium balance in the brain, priming your mind for creativity and focus.