The Brain on Waves
Episode #8 of the course Understanding meditation and the science behind it by Colin Pal
“Mindfulness is learning from the inside out that we are not our stories, not even the ones that tell us we are. Truth is, we have a choice in how we pay attention and what we pay attention to.” —Tweet this.
A part of understanding the science behind meditation is to understand the brain wave activities happening in our brain. We know that the brain is electrochemical in nature: When neurons fire, they exchange elements that produce electromagnetic fields. This electrical activity can be measured using an electroencephalograph (EEG). Research has discovered a spectrum of brain wave frequencies in humans, ranging in levels of vibration depending on the activity that’s happening. In today’s lesson, we’ll explore the different brainwave frequencies and the roles they play.
Delta. This is the lowest brainwave level, functioning at 0.5 to 4 hertz (cycles per second). Delta waves are found in deep sleep; there is very little conscious awareness and the body is restoring itself.
Theta. This measures at 4-8 hertz. Theta emerges in the twilight state or lucid state between deep sleep and wakefulness. The conscious mind is awake but the body is asleep.
Alpha. Found at eight to 13 cycles per second, this is the creative and imaginative state. Your brain is in a meditative state where you reduce sensory data from your environment, become less preoccupied with external stimuli, and begin to focus your attention on the inner world of your mind. Your brain actually moves into this state effortlessly on a daily basis. When you’re learning something new, your brain is functioning at the higher frequency of Beta to take in and analyze the new information. When you’ve heard enough and pause to process that information, your brain slips into Alpha to consolidate and memorize it.
Beta. This functions above 13 hertz. Beta represents the conscious and analytical thinking functions of the brain. Your brain is processing sensory data and trying to create meaning between your outer and inner worlds. Beta governs most of our waking hours and can be further broken down into three levels:
• Low-range Beta (13-15 hertz) is defined as a relaxed and interested attention, like when you’re reading and enjoying a book. You’re paying attention without much effort.
• Mid-range Beta (16-22 hertz) is during a more focused attention. An example is when you’re learning something new and analyzing the information.
• High-range Beta (22-50 hertz) is common during stressful situations where your mind and body is in survival (fight or flight) mode. It’s the high-arousal state of focused attention, where your mind and body is amped up and stimulated. In a state of emergency, the increased electrical activity is required in the brain and body. This may be useful for survival in the short term. But if you remain in survival or emergency mode for long periods of time, the high-range beta becomes a source of stress, anxiety, anger, pain, suffering, and imbalance. Sustained high beta over time not only creates imbalance and upsets the body’s equilibrium, it also sets the stage for disorders and disease.
Gamma.This is the fastest brain wave of all, functioning at 40-100 hertz. Gamma waves are more compressed and have a smaller amplitude. Although their cycles per second are similar to high-range beta, there is no correlation between them. High amounts of gamma activity in the brain are actually linked to elevated states of mind like happiness, compassion, kindness, and heightened awareness. Research has found high levels of gamma waves in EEG recordings of monks and long-term practitioners of meditation. No surprise there!
All levels of brain waves are actually active at all times. Depending what activity your mind and body is in, certain brainwave levels will be more active and dominant. When you are meditating and practicing mindfulness, you are training your brain to shift from functioning at high-range Beta to lower ranges of Beta and even Alpha. By changing the quality of your experiences and taking that awareness, compassion, and love and sharing it with others, you also increase the gamma waves in your brain, creating even more happiness and fulfillment in your life.
Challenge of the Day
Explore Brainwave Entrainment. These are methods of stimulating the brain into specific states of brain waves using sounds, also known as binaural beats. You may consider using special apps and services (e.g. Brain.fm) to help you get started.
In the next lesson, we’ll talk about different ways we can promote a healthy brain.
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