What are Brainwaves?
Your brain is made up of billions of brain cells called neurons, which use electricity to communicate with each other. The combination of millions of neurons sending signals all at once produces an enormous amount of electrical activity in the brain, which can be detected using sensitive medical equipment (such as an EEG), measuring electricity levels over areas of the scalp.
This combination of electrical activity of the brain is commonly called a brainwave pattern, because of its cyclic, ‘wave-like’ nature. This topic is highly relevant to good mental health and overall well-being. The cognitive neuroscience movement is further revealing the magical dance between the brain and the mind.
With the discovery of brainwaves came the discovery that electrical activity in the brain will change depending on what the person is doing. For instance, the brainwaves of a sleeping person are vastly different from the brainwaves of someone wide awake. Over the years, more sensitive equipment has brought us closer to figuring out exactly what brainwaves represent and with that, what they mean about a person’s health and state of mind.
Our brainwaves change according to what we’re doing and feeling. When slower brainwaves are dominant we can feel tired, slow, sluggish, or dreamy. When the higher frequencies are dominant then we can feel ‘wired’, or hyper-alert, even anxious. This sophisticated communication between neurons impacts on all our thoughts, emotions and behaviours.
Brainwaves are divided into bandwidths but are best thought of as a continuous spectrum of consciousness; delta being slow, deep and functional – to gamma being fast, subtle, and complex.
The descriptions that follow are only general, offering an overview – in practice things are far more complex, as brainwaves can reflect different characteristics when they occur in different locations in the brain.
Brainwave Frequency and Associated Mental States
Gamma: 27hz and up
Gamma brainwaves are the fastest of all brainwaves, and relate to the simultaneous processing of information from different brain areas. At this frequency (27hz) information moves rapidly throughout the brain, and as the most subtle of the brainwave frequencies, the mind has to be quiet to access it. The presence of gamma relates to expanded consciousness and spiritual emergence
Gamma was previously dismissed as ‘spare brain noise’ until researchers discovered it was highly active when the mind was in states of universal love, altruism, and the ‘higher virtues’. Gamma rhythms relate to perception and consciousness, disappearing under anaesthesia and during deep sleep, and returning in the transition back to a wakeful state. Gamma is also above the frequency of neuronal firing, so how it is generated still remains a mystery. Gamma is also associated with the formation of ideas, language and memory processing, as well as various types of learning.
Beta: 12hz – 27hz
Beta brainwaves dominate our normal waking state of consciousness and are registered when our attention is directed towards cognitive tasks and the outside world. This is where most of us operate from during our waking state. Beta can be (at the top end of the bandwidth) a ‘fast’ frequency, which is present when we are alert, attentive, engaged in problem solving, discrimination, decision making, and focused mental activity. At the lower end of the beta range (12-15hz) individuals can experience mental or emotional disorders such as depression and ADD and also insomnia. Stimulating beta activity with positive activities can improve emotional stability, energy levels, attentiveness and concentration.
Beta brainwaves are further divided into three bands; low beta (beta1) can be thought of as a ‘fast idle’, or musing. Beta (or beta 2) as high engagement. Hi-beta (beta 3) is highly complex thought, high anxiety, or excitement. Continual high frequency processing is not a very efficient way to run the brain, as it takes a tremendous amount of energy.
Alpha: 8hz – 12hz
Alpha brainwaves relate to when we are awake but relaxed and not processing much information. When you get up in the morning and just before sleep, you are naturally in this state. When you close your eyes your brain automatically starts producing more alpha waves. Alpha brainwaves are present during quietly flowing thoughts, but not quite meditation. Alpha is ‘the power of now’, being here, in the present. Alpha is the resting state for the brain. Alpha waves aid overall mental coordination, calmness, alertness, mind/body integration and learning.
Many studies monitoring the EEG activity of experienced meditators have revealed strong increases in alpha activity. Alpha activity has also been connected to the ability to recall memories, lessen discomfort and pain, and reductions in stress and anxiety.
Theta: 3hz – 8hz
Theta brainwaves occur most often in sleep but are also prevalent in deep meditation. The theta state is the primary gateway to learning and memory. In theta, our senses are withdrawn from the external world and focused on signals originating from within. It is that ‘twilight’ state of consciousness, which we normally only experience fleetingly as we wake or drift off to sleep. The theta frequencies are where we enter into the world of dreams, vivid imagery, intuition and information beyond our normal conscious awareness. It’s also where we hold our ‘stuff’, our fears, troubled history, and nightmares.
Theta is also a very receptive mental state that has proven useful for hypnotherapy, as well as self-hypnosis, using recorded affirmations and positive suggestions. It’s a stage where one can most easily imbibe such messages.
Delta: 0.2hz – 3hz
Delta is the slowest band of brainwaves. When your dominant brainwave is delta, your body is engaged in healing itself and ‘re-setting’ its internal clocks. You do not dream in this state as you are completely unconscious.
Delta brainwaves are the slowest but ‘loudest’ brainwaves (low frequency and deeply penetrating, like a drum beat). They are also generated in very deep meditation. Delta waves suspend external awareness and are the source of kindness, compassion and empathy. Healing and regeneration are very active in this state, and that is why deep restorative sleep is so essential to the healing process. Without adequate amounts of delta sleep we are unable to enjoy good mental health.
What brainwaves mean to you?
Our brainwave profile and our daily experience of the world are inseparable. When our brainwaves are out of balance, there will be corresponding problems in our emotional or neuro-physical health. Research has identified brainwave patterns associated with all sorts of emotional and neurological conditions.
Over-arousal in certain brain areas is linked to anxiety disorders, sleep problems, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, impulsive behaviour, anger/aggression, agitated depression, chronic nerve pain and spasticity. Under-arousal in certain brain areas leads to some types of depression, attention deficit, chronic pain and insomnia. A combination of under-arousal and over-arousal is seen often in cases of anxiety, depression and ADHD.
Instabilities in brain rhythms correlate with tics, obsessive-compulsive disorder, aggressive behaviour, rage, bruxism, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, migraines, narcolepsy, epilepsy, sleep apnoea, vertigo, tinnitus, anorexia/bulimia, PMT, diabetes, hypoglycaemia and paranoid behaviour.