At the root of all our thoughts, emotions and behaviours is the communication between neurons within our brains. Brainwaves are produced by synchronised electrical pulses from masses of neurons communicating with each other. Brainwaves are detected using sensors placed on the scalp. They are divided into bandwidths to describe their functions (below), but are best thought of as a continuous spectrum of consciousness; Delta being slow, loud and functional – to Gamma being fast, subtle, and complex. It is a handy analogy to think of Brainwaves as musical notes – the low frequency waves like a deeply penetrating drum beat, while the higher frequency brainwaves are like a subtle high pitched flute. Our brainwaves change according to what we’re doing and feeling. When slower brainwaves are dominant we can feel tired, slow, sluggish, or dreamy. The higher frequencies are dominant when we feel wired, or hyper-alert. The descriptions that follow are only broadly descriptions – in practice things are far more complex, and brainwaves reflect different aspects when they occur in different locations in the brain. Brainwave speed is measured in Hertz (cycles per second) and they are dived into bands deliniating slow, moderate, and fast waves.
Before I get into specifics, it is important to realize that when I refer to a certain brain wave, I am implying that a particular brain wave is “dominant.” Throughout the day in your waking state, your EEG will display all 5 types of brain waves at the same time. However, one particular brain wave will be dominant depending on the state of consciousness that you are in. For example, if you are awake, but have really bad ADHD, you may have more slow wave (alpha and/or theta) activity than beta waves. During sleep usually there are combinations of the slower frequencies, but even gamma has been found to be involved in rapid-eye movement (REM).
These are involved in higher processing tasks as well as cognitive functioning. Gamma waves are important for learning, memory and information processing. It is thought that the 40 Hz gamma wave is important for the binding of our senses in regards to perception and are involved in learning new material. It has been found that individuals who are mentally challenged and have learning disabilities tend to have lower gamma activity than average.
• Frequency range: 40 Hz to 100 Hz (Highest)
• Too much: Anxiety, high arousal, stress
• Too little: ADHD, depression, learning disabilities
• Optimal: Binding senses, cognition, information processing, learning, perception, REM sleep
• Increase gamma waves: Meditation
These are known as high frequency low amplitude brain waves that are commonly observed while we are awake. They are involved in conscious thought, logical thinking, and tend to have a stimulating affect. Having the right amount of beta waves allows us to focus and complete school or work-based tasks easily. Having too much beta may lead to us experiencing excessive stress and/or anxiety. The higher beta frequencies are associated with high levels of arousal. When you drink caffeine or have another stimulant, your beta activity will naturally increase. Think of these as being very fast brain waves that most people exhibit throughout the day in order to complete conscious tasks such as: critical thinking, writing, reading, and socialization.
• Frequency range: 12 Hz to 40 Hz (High)
• Too much: Adrenaline, anxiety, high arousal, inability to relax, stress
• Too little: ADHD, daydreaming, depression, poor cognition
• Optimal: Conscious focus, memory, problem solving
• Increase beta waves: Coffee, energy drinks, various stimulants
This frequency range bridges the gap between our conscious thinking and subconscious mind. In other words, alpha is the frequency range between beta and theta. It helps us calm down when necessary and promotes feelings of deep relaxation. If we become stressed, a phenomenon called “alpha blocking” may occur which involves excessive beta activity and very little alpha. Essentially the beta waves “block” out the production of alpha because we become too aroused.
• Frequency range: 8 Hz to 12 Hz (Moderate)
• Too much: Daydreaming, inability to focus, too relaxed
• Too little: Anxiety, high stress, insomnia, OCD
• Optimal: Relaxation
• Increase alpha waves: Alcohol, marijuana, relaxants, some antidepressants
This particular frequency range is involved in daydreaming and sleep. Theta waves are connected to us experiencing and feeling deep and raw emotions. Too much theta activity may make people prone to bouts of depression and may make them “highly suggestible” based on the fact that they are in a deeply relaxed, semi-hypnotic state. Theta has its benefits of helping improve our intuition, creativity, and makes us feel more natural. It is also involved in restorative sleep. As long as theta isn’t produced in excess during our waking hours, it is a very helpful brain wave range.
• Frequency range: 4 Hz to 8 Hz (Slow)
• Too much: ADHD, depression, hyperactivity, impulsivity, inattentiveness
• Too little: Anxiety, poor emotional awareness, stress
• Optimal: Creativity, emotional connection, intuition, relaxation
• Increase theta waves: Depressants
These are the slowest recorded brain waves in human beings. They are found most often in infants as well as young children. As we age, we tend to produce less delta even during deep sleep. They are associated with the deepest levels of relaxation and restorative, healing sleep. They have also been found to be involved in unconscious bodily functions such as regulating heart beat and digestion. Adequate production of delta waves helps us feel completely rejuvenated after we wake up from a good night’s sleep. If there is abnormal delta activity, an individual may experience learning disabilities or have difficulties maintaining conscious awareness (such as in cases of brain injuries).
• Frequency range: 0 Hz to 4 Hz (Slowest)
• Too much: Brain injuries, learning problems, inability to think, severe ADHD
• Too little: Inability to rejuvenate body, inability to revitalize the brain, poor sleep
• Optimal: Immune system, natural healing, restorative / deep sleep
• Increase delta waves: Depressants, sleep
People tend to talk as if they were producing one type of brain wave (e.g., producing “alpha” for meditating). But these aren’t really “separate” brain waves – the categories are just for convenience. They help describe the changes we see in brain activity during different kinds of activities. So we don’t ever produce only “one” brain wave type. Our overall brain activity is a mix of all the frequencies at the same time, some in greater quantities and strength than others. The meaning of all this? Balance is the key. We don’t want to regularly produce too much or too little of any brainwave frequency.
We need both flexibility and resilience for optimal functioning. Flexibility generally means being able to shift ideas or activities when we need to or when something is just not working. Well, it means the same thing when we talk about the brain. We need to be able to shift our brain activity to match what we are doing. At work, we need to stay focused and attentive and those beta waves are a Good Thing. But when we get home and want to relax, we want to be able to produce less beta and more alpha activity. To get to sleep, we want to be able to slow down even more. So, we get in trouble when we can’t shift to match the demands of our lives. We’re also in trouble when we get stuck in a certain pattern. For example, after injury of some kind to the brain (and that could be physical or emotional), the brain tries to stabilize itself and it purposely slows down. (For a parallel, think of yourself learning to drive – you wanted to go r-e-a-l s-l-ow to feel in control, right?). But if the brain stays that slow, if it gets “stuck” in the slower frequencies, you will have difficulty concentrating and focusing, thinking clearly, etc. So flexibility is a key goal for efficient brain functioning. Resilience generally means stability – being able to bounce back from negative events and to “bend with the wind, not break”. Studies show that people who are resilient are healthier and happier than those who are not. Same thing in the brain. The brain needs to be able to “bounce back” from all the unhealthy things we do to it (drinking, smoking, missing sleep, banging it, etc.) And the resilience we all need to stay healthy and happy starts in the brain. Resilience is critical for your brain to be and stay effective. When something goes wrong, likely it is because our brain is lacking either flexibility or resilience.
We want our brain to be both flexible – able to adjust to whatever we are wanting to do – and resilient – able to go with the flow. To do this, it needs access to a variety of different brain states. These states are produced by different patterns and types of brain wave frequencies. We can see and measure these patterns of activity in the EEG. EEG biofeedback is a method for increasing both flexibility and resilience of the brain by using the EEG to see our brain waves. It is important to think about EEG neurofeedback as training thebehaviour of brain waves, not trying to promote one type of specific activity over another. For general health and wellness purposes, we need all the brain wave types, but we need our brain to have the flexibility and resilience to be able to balance the brain wave activity as necessary for what we are doing at any one time.
The Big 6 :
• Medications, including alcohol
• Emotional distress
These 6 types of problems tend to create a pattern in our brain’s activity that is hard to shift. In chaos theory, we would call this pattern a “chaotic attractor”. Getting “stuck” in a specific kind of brain behaviour is like being caught in an attractor. Even if you aren’t into chaos theory, you know being “stuck” doesn’t work – it keeps us in a place we likely don’t want to be all the time and makes it harder to dedicate our energies to something else -> Flexibility and Resilience.
Delta brainwaves are the slowest but loudest brainwaves (low frequency and deeply penetrating, like a drum beat). They are generated in deepest meditation and dreamless sleep. Delta waves suspend external awareness and are the source of empathy. Healing and regeneration are stimulated in this state, and that is why deep restorative sleep is so essential to the healing process.
Theta brainwaves occur most often in sleep but are also dominant in the deep meditation. It acts as our 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 which we normally only experience fleetingly as we wake or drift off to sleep. In theta we are in a dream; vivid imagery, intuition and information beyond our normal conscious awareness. It’s where we hold our ‘stuff’, our fears, troubled history, and nightmares.
Alpha brainwaves are dominant during quietly flowing thoughts, and in some meditative states. 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.
Beta brainwaves dominate our normal waking state of consciousness when attention is directed towards cognitive tasks and the outside world. Beta is a ‘fast’ activity, present when we are alert, attentive, engaged in problem solving, judgment, decision making, and engaged in focused mental activity. Beta brainwaves are further divided into three bands; Low Beta (Beta1, 12-15Hz) can be thought of as a ‘fast idle, or musing. Beta (aka. Beta2, 15-22Hz) as high engagement. Hi-Beta (Beta3, 22-38Hz) is highly complex thought, integrating new experiences, 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.
Gamma brainwaves are the fastest of brain waves (high frequency, like a flute), and relate to simultaneous processing of information from different brain areas. It passes information rapidly, and as the most subtle of the brainwave frequencies, the mind has to be quiet to access it. Gamma was traditionally dismissed as ‘spare brain noise’ until researchers discovered it was highly active when in states of universal love, altruism, and the ‘higher virtues’. Gamma rhythms modulate perception and consciousness, disappearing under anaesthesia. Gamma is also above the frequency of neuronal firing, so how it is generated remains a mystery. The presence of Gamma relates to expanded consciousness and spiritual emergence.