The mind is a mystical thing. All those thoughts, ideas, images – where do they come from and where do they go? What is happening when we dream, or concentrate, or come up with the solution to an algebra problem? Science might not be able to answer these questions about the mind, but it can answer these questions about the brain. With the help of radically new technologies, neuroscience has taken interstellar leaps forward in the last few decades, with the result that we are now able to see what happens when people are in different states of consciousness. And brainwaves are the key.
The human brain is the most complex piece of computing hardware we know. You have probably heard that it contains more neurons than there are stars in the Milky Way or even stars in the known universe. Though neither of these claims is factually correct, the comparisons are useful in helping appreciate how sophisticated the grey matter between our ears really is. So sophisticated that it was impossible to study with any degree of success until fairly recently, when technology like MRI and EEG machines allowed us to examine what was going on in the human brain, without having to physically see one. EEG monitors, in particular, helped reveal the intricate electrical processes that run in the brain under different conditions.
At any point in time, your brain is a hive of activity with millions of electrical impulses firing between neurons as they send messages to each other. Those messages may relate to you scratching an itch, reading the newspaper or listening to the radio, but regardless of the application, clusters of neurons learn to fire together and brain cells begin to sync their behavior. When these cycles begin to repeat, they establish rhythms known as neural oscillations, or brainwaves. Like all wave patterns, brainwaves are classified according to their frequency, and conventional human experience has been associated with five primary wave patterns: Gamma (highest frequency), Beta, Alpha, Theta and Delta (lowest frequency). These patterns switch constantly depending on how we are using our brains at any given moment, but amazingly, brainwave patterns have been found to correlate with specific states of consciousness.
States of Consciousness? Sounds a bit “woowoo”
States of consciousness may be something you’d expect to hear about from a guy who sells crystals and bottles of moonlight, but there’s nothing particularly alternative about them. We all experience different states of consciousness every day as we move from a waking state, to a dreaming state, to a deep dreamless state. Think about a recent time when you were intently focused on completing a task, versus a time when you were totally relaxed on a beach. Those are examples of two different mind states, and they are defined by specific brainwave patterns. The 5 primary brainwave frequencies are matched to the following state experiences:
Gamma: Energy and focus, bursts of insight, “a-ha!” moments of clarity
Beta: Alertness, attention, motivation, focus
Alpha: Awake but relaxed, heightened creativity, stress-release
Theta: Daydreaming, deep creativity, insight, healing, intuition
Delta: Deep sleep/meditation, formless awareness
Generally, the higher the brainwave frequency, the more alert you are, but there is never only one brainwave present at any time. Your awareness is always driven by a constant blend of brainwaves, but there is usually one that is dominant, depending on what you are doing. It is possible, for example, to determine whether someone is waking up just by looking at their brainwave patterns, as alpha waves drop off and beta waves come online.
So, how is this knowledge useful to me?
It is true that our state of consciousness changes constantly throughout the day, but we are not necessarily in the best mind state for the task at hand. If we need to focus on the completion of a demanding project before a tight deadline, being in a relaxed alpha brainwave state is possibly not the best way to approach the situation. In such cases, our brain normally steps up and we find ourselves in the more alert state correlated with beta waves. A more common problem is when we need to reverse that process. The stressful nature of the modern workplace and the ‘always on’ culture we are a part of, mean that many of us spend too much time in the highly alert beta brainwave state. We even use stimulants like coffee and sugar to keep us there, because that’s what our environment demands of us. But this is not sustainable or healthy. The brain needs to drop into lower frequencies like alpha, theta and delta in order to rejuvenate and restore, but with the influence of technology and poor lifestyle choices we prevent that from happening, leading to the ‘wired but tired’ state associated with poor sleep and burnout.
Beyond these primary states, we also have access to elevated states of creativity, and altered states of consciousness like Flow – found at the bridge of alpha and theta – in which we experience heightened focus, productivity and insight. Mark Beeman at Northwestern University is well-known for his research into the Aha! Moment – that lightbulb event associated with sparks of sudden insight. In his studies, Beeman found that the stroke of genius desperately craved by businesses when they organize brainstorming sessions, is associated with a flood of gamma waves that rush through the brain just before the insight dawns. Importantly, though, that gamma burst most predictably rises from a brain in an alpha state, which is why most brainstorming session in beta-dominated business doesn’t produce any genuinely new ideas.
Adapt and thrive
The good news is that we can train our brains to achieve the lower frequency patterns that are not available to most of us during the day. Alpha states are induced through relaxation techniques like conscious deep breathing or yoga, and occur spontaneously when we spend time in nature (especially when on summer holiday). The best technique for accessing theta and delta while awake is meditation, and the positive effects of this have been proven by thousands of peer-reviewed research pieces. Work by the Flow Genome Project has found that this elusive and mysterious peak performance state can also be activated intentionally. Even technology can play a positive role. As I write this, I am listening to a brain entrainment audio landscape that his helping my brain drop into the alpha/theta matrix where I feel most creative.
When combined with one of the other great discoveries of recent neuroscience – neuroplasticity – it is clear that brainwaves can be used to our advantage. By understanding the connection between the invisible mind and the visible brain, we can accelerate our own self-development, and optimise the performance of Nature’s most incredible machine.