What are brain waves? And how can we train them?

Brain waves:


Contrary to what you might think, brainwaves aren’t a physical thing—they’re a measurement of activity that’s going on within your brain.

The brain is an electrochemical organ, meaning that if you hooked up enough wires to your scalp, you might be able to power a light bulb. This electrical communication happens through neurons, which are specialized brain cells that are responsible for transmitting information through the body in both chemical and electrical forms. And the electrical activity that emanates from these neurons communicating is measured in the form of brainwaves.

Up until recently, brainwave measurement was pretty much restricted to a medical or lab setting, as it requires tools like electroencephalography (EEG)—whereby sensors attached to the scalp “read” the brainwaves, similar to how your heart-rate monitor reads your pulse—or neuroimaging, which scans the bran using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or other technology. (Kinda like an aura photo for your noggin.) But devices, like the ones used at the Neuro Athletics HQ in TriBeca,  allow you to get a read on your brainwaves. 

There are five different types of brain waves, ranging from low to high frequency:

  • Delta brain waves are the slowest brain waves. They are generated in deep meditation and dreamless sleep. Healing and regeneration occur when the brain is in this state.

  • Theta waves also occur in sleep and during relaxation. They are indicative of an inner focus, and dreams and vivid imagery occur in this state.

  • Alpha waves occur during quiet, thoughtful times. Alpha waves indicate that the brain is in a resting state.

  • Beta waves are the most common pattern in the normal waking state. They occur when one is alert and focused on problem solving.

  • Gamma brain waves are the fastest and are associated with higher levels of consciousness.

Brain waves and sleep:

The brain is very active during sleep, and each stage of sleep is characterized by the brain waves that accompany it.

  • Stage 1: In this stage, alpha waves are replaced by theta waves as one transitions from relaxation to sleep. Sleep is light and easily disturbed.

  • Stage 2: During this stage of sleep, brain waves become slower as alpha activity stops completely and theta waves predominate.

  • Stages 3 and 4: These stages are very similar in that both are forms of deep sleep. Brain activity slows down as delta waves occur. These are the stages during which sleepwalking and nightmares occur.

  • Stage 5 (REM): During the rapid eye movement (REM) stage, the muscles become temporarily paralyzed, and the eyes move quickly. Dreaming also occurs during this stage. The pattern of brain waves is similar to that in stages 1 and 2, although the sleeper is in a deeper state of sleep.

So how can we increase our brain’s production of alpha waves?

Any activity that brings about a relaxed sense of well-being is connected with increased alpha waves. Those include but are not limited to the following:

Yoga

Studies have shown how the positive benefits of yoga are associated with alpha brainwave production. A decrease in serum cortisol during yoga exercise is correlated with alpha wave activation.

Binaural Beats

When two sine waves of a frequency lower than 1500hz and a difference lower than 40hz between them are presented to the listener one in each ear, the auditory illusion of a third tone will appear that has a frequency equal to the difference between the two tones. This is called a binaural beat.

Listening to binaural beats in the alpha wave range is said to help synchronize the brain with that frequency.

Exercise

A 2015 study on the relation of physical exercise on alpha brainwaves has shown that alpha waves increased following intense physical exercise.

Saunas/Massages

Those are good methods to relax your entire body and to allow your mind to quiet down. The resulting feeling of deep relaxation is connected with alpha brainwave activity.

Cannabis

While still a controversial subject, a controlled placebo study done in the 90s with EEGs has shown “an increase of EEG alpha power, correlating with intense euphoria, was found after smoking marihuana“.

Mindfulness/Meditation

Nothing has shown such a clear connection to alpha waves as practicing mindfulness and meditation. More experienced practitioners can generate even slower brainwaves than alpha. Studies have shown Buddhist monks generating gamma brain waves by focusing on feelings of compassion. Even the reduction of external stimuli by closing your eyes has shown an increase in alpha brainwaves. Deepening your breath has a similar effect on your brain.

So start by observing the subtle changes that occur when you close your eyes. Try to take three conscious deep breaths and open your eyes again. What differences do you feel? Being able to recognize the different quality of this alpha wave state and to actively pursue it is more important than anything else in that direction.

Most of us are involved in a hectic way of life that pushes us in a constant stressful and anxious state. For this reason, practicing mindfulness and meditation is probably the greatest tool we possess towards that goal right now.

References:

  1. Ericson, J. (2014, March 26). REM, dreams, and brain waves explained: What happens in the brain when we sleep? Medical Daily. Retrieved from http://www.medicaldaily.com/rem-dreams-and-brain-waves-explained-what-happens-brain-when-we-sleep-272580.

  2. Guyol, G. (n.d.). Ending Mood Disorders Without Drugs. Retrieved from http://www.gmhcn.org/files/Wellness/EndingMoodDisordersWithoutDrugs.html.

  3. Laskow, S. (2014, November 23). The role of the supernatural in the discovery of EEGs. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/11/the-role-of-the-supernatural-in-the-discovery-of-eegs/382838.

  4. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2014). EEG (electroencephalogram). org. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/eeg/basics/why-its-done/prc-20014093.

  5. Myers, J.E., & Young, J.S. (2012). Brain wave biofeedback: Benefits of integrating neurofeedback in counseling. Journal of Counseling & Development, Vol 90(1), 20-28.

  6. Trafton, A. (2013, October 16). Schizophrenia linked to abnormal brain waves. Retrieved from http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2013/schizophrenia-linked-to-abnormal-brain-waves-1016.

  7. What are brainwaves? (n.d.). Brainworks. Retrieved from http://www.brainworksneurotherapy.com/what-are-brainwaves.