Throughout the day, our moods and focus shift depending on what we are doing. This shift in attention is reflected in our brain waves. Brain waves are talked about a lot in mainstream science and media but not a lot of people really know what they are or where they come from. Let’s take a closer look at the science behind brain waves, the differences in them, and why it matters to you.
Brain waves are electrical signals that are created by neurons firing electrical signals to communicate with each other. The brain contains around 90 billion specialized cells that communicate in this way. They are measured by a diagnostic tool called electroencephalography (EEG). Much like how an ECG measures electrical activity in the heart, an EEG measures it in the brain. The faster the neurons emit these electrical impulses the faster the frequency. The more neurons that are involved in communication the higher the amplitude. Based on the frequency and amplitude brain waves are classified into five different types. Beta, Alpha, Theta, Delta and the mysterious Gamma.
The brain typically has multiple types of waves present at any given time. Our actions, emotions, and thoughts are reflected in what wave is dominantly present.
When our environment is demanding and fast-paced, brains must adapt to keep up with their surroundings. Beta waves are the waves that are present when we are focused and alert. They are high-frequency waves that occur when we play sports, communicating with other people, or working to solve a problem.
Often when we are feeling hyperactive and ultra alert beta waves become a dominant presence in our brain. Meaning that neurons are firing faster in order for our brains to process information better to keep up with what is happening in our environment. Beta frequencies run around 12- 40 Hz
Alpha waves are another wave that is present when we are alert. During Alpha wave dominance people are usually deep in thought and calm. Alpha waves are the brain’s resting state. When we are not in the red, so to speak, with Beta waves we are in the yellow with Alphas.
Alpha waves are associated with learning, problem-solving, and integration of the mind and body. They are also dominant during repetitive tasks such as bathing. Alpha waves can be made dominant by certain types of meditation. They fire at around 8 to 12 Hz.
Theta waves are evident during a time of extremely deep meditation and sleep. It’s during this time when we dream and often our subconsciousness takes over.
The “theta state” is used to describe that feeling we get when we first start drifting off to sleep or when we are just about to wake up. Some disciplined practices of meditation can enter a theta state and remain there for long periods of time at will. Theta waves operate between 4 and 8Hz
Slow delta waves are dominant during deep sleep. It is in these moments that the parasympathetic nervous system is active in healing our bodies while we sleep. It is very difficult to wake someone in a delta state. If a delta state is interrupted the person will feel extremely groggy and tired.
While Delta waves are dominant all awareness of the outside world is suspended. They are present during dreamless sleep. They are very slow and fire under 4 Hz.
Gamma waves are a relatively recent discovery. They show firing at extremely high frequencies. These high frequencies are faster than the rate scientists believe our neurons can fire.
Gamma waves used to be called brain noise because nobody is really sure where they originate from. However, links have been made between gamma waves and things like higher thought, spiritual awareness, love, and altruism.
Throughout the day our brains alternate between which brain waves are dominant. These are called Basic Rest and Activity Cycles. Knowing how your cycles work can help you be more productive and better understand your emotions.