The 5 Types of Brainwaves

A number of years back, a friend gave me a book called “The Brain That Changes Itself”. Written in 2007, it’s all about the science of neuroplasticity. It was back when this science around our brains’ ability to change was still somewhat new… still vibrating with that almost sci-fi feel. There is so much we have learned in recent years about our brains and their ability to adapt:

We don’t actually have a finite number of brain cells, and though alcohol definitely kills them, one weekend of heavy drinking won’t leave you any dumber. At least not in the way we thought.

It happens that our brains can build up and tear down neural pathways within hours, and though our grey matter can bend and change, it’s also definitely a “use it or lose it” proposition. In other words, if you’re learning a language, don’t stop. You can’t stop, or your brain will start dismantling your work. Within hours. Seriously! It’s amazing.

Turns out these incredible microprocessors that sit on our shoulders and broadcast messages to our bodies, like a Starfleet commander, even emit waves. Brainwaves… actual electrical pulses… from huge masses of neurons communicating with each other.

What Are Brainwaves?

Brainwaves are at the root of pretty much every single thing you do and every emotion you feel. They are the “noise” from communication between great masses of neurons in our brains. 

Brainwaves can be detected with sensors affixed to the scalp, and are organized into bandwidths to describe their function. All day long, 24/7, even (and especially) while sleeping, our brains are active. Neurons are holding various conventions among community members, and these are perceived and understood by us as thoughts, feelings, and actions. Plot one’s brainwaves on paper and what you end up with is long waves and arcs, the visual representation of a continuous spectrum of consciousness. Slow, fast, loud, subtle, functional, complex, they all make an appearance at various times of the day.

Our brainwaves can and do change, depending on what we’re doing and feeling. When slower brainwaves dominate the scene we can feel sluggish or spacey. Conversely, the higher frequencies make us feel wired, or hyper-alert.

How Do Brainwaves Work? 

Brainwave speed is measured in Hertz, or cycles per second, and are divided into bands highlighting slow, moderate, and fast waves. 

Infra-Low (<.5 Hz)

Infra-Low brainwaves are known (right now, anyway) as the basic rhythms that underlie our higher brain functions. Very little is understood about them right now, but I’m sure there’s plenty we’ll eventually find out. They are so slow that they are difficult to measure and detect, so they are hard to study with the tools currently available. What researchers do see is that infra-low brainwaves appear to play a major role in the function of the brain’s whole network. Like the back of house at a restaurant.

Delta (.5-3 Hz)

Delta waves are the slowest but loudest of all the brainwaves. Think of a deep baseline or a drumbeat. They are a low frequency and resonate strongly. They are generated in dreamless sleep and very deep meditation. This is where healing and regeneration in the body are stimulated… this is partly why you feel so incredible after a long sleep. Because your body had a chance to really do its thing.

Theta (3-8 Hz)

Theta brainwaves are just a little higher in frequency than Delta, and also occur in sleep and deep meditation. These brainwaves are also where both learning and intuition occur, and the recall of memories. Think of the few moments just after you wake up, or just before you sleep. That “drifting” kind of feeling is likely to be your brainwaves in theta. The dreaminess, the space between awake and asleep, where we’re a little more receptive and open.

Alpha (8-12 Hz)

If you’re feeling like you’re in a state of “flow”, you may be grooving to an Alpha frequency. Alpha brainwaves are marked by flowing thoughts, and some meditative states. Alpha is you, here, present and accounted for. You’re calm, alert, coordinated, and “firing on all cylinders” as they say. This is a great frequency to be at for learning.

Beta (12-38 Hz)

Beta brainwaves are our normal waking state of consciousness. You might have noticed that Beta has a huge frequency range compared to the others, and that’s because there are a few different “bands” of Beta frequencies that your brain can be flowing in.

Our brains may be in Beta when attention is directed outwardly, toward a task or a person. Like the Alpha state, Beta is “fast”… we’re alert, engaged, and making good choices.

The three bands of Beta brainwaves are:

  • Beta1 (12-15Hz) think of easy mental activities, musings. 
  • Beta2 (15-22Hz) is when you’re actively puzzling something out. 
  • Beta3 (22-38Hz) involves highly complex thought, anxiety or excitement. You may be in high Beta when having a new experience. High Beta is marked by that “buzzy” feeling. Because of the amount of stress in many people’s lives, they spend way too much time at this frequency. It takes a large amount of energy to run at this frequency, and the burnout is real. 

Gamma (38-42 Hz)

Gamma brainwaves are the fastest of them all. They used to be the ones we knew little about, like the Infra-low brain waves now. Gamma involves the simultaneous integration of information from different areas of the brain, rapidly and quietly too. Gamma is the most subtle of all the frequencies… you’ve got to be really chilled out for your brain to access this frequency.

At one time it was Gamma brainwaves that were not very well studied, and even dismissed as “spare brain noise”. Then researchers discovered that when we’re in a state of love and caring for another, performing an altruistic act, or basically just being a do-gooder, the Gamma frequency was present. 

But there’s still a lot to learn, for example how the frequency is generated in the first place. As I mentioned, brainwaves are basically the chatter of neurons firing, communicating and working together. But the Gamma frequency is actually higher than the frequency that neurons fire at. Mysterious!

It is believed that Gamma rhythms inform our perception and consciousness, and that the presence of more Gamma points to expanded spiritual understanding and capacity.

Your Brainwaves And You

What does all of this mean? For me, it’s another tool. I recently wrote about making a change, and really making it stick. Understanding that the chemicals in your brain will have a say about this change, and, armed with that knowledge, better preparing yourself for what’s coming. 

I think of our brainwaves in much the same way. Plot one day of my brainwaves out on paper, and yours too, and those will render completely differently. But they will mirror each of our experiences, exactly. Our brainwave profile and our experience of the world, for purposes of this discussion, are one and the same. If your mental health is suffering, that will be reflected in your brainwaves. If you’re stressed out all the time, now that you know a little about brainwaves, you may be able to recognize that it’s an unhealthy place for your brain to be. 

Over (or under) stimulation in certain brain areas is linked with a whole laundry list of conditions, here are just a few:

  • Anxiety disorders and hypervigilance
  • Impulsive behavior and poor decision making
  • Anger, aggression, and depression
  • ADHD
  • Chronic nerve pain and spasms

Instability in brain rhythms, as opposed to a stimulation issue, correlate with:

  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Panic attacks
  • Narcolepsy
  • Migraines
  • Tics
  • Bipolar disorder

Change Your Brainwaves, Change Your Vibe

Brainwaves can be changed by drugs… you might notice that pretty much everything on those lists above is treatable with pharmaceutical and/or recreational drugs. But as you might expect, just as changing your behavior alters the chemical cocktail your brain creates, anything that changes your perception will change your brainwaves too.

Yoga and meditation have been shown to train your brainwaves into balance, and while I am 100% not suggesting that you stop taking your meds and go on a yoga retreat in Bali, I am definitely suggesting that these things can (and do) help. Particularly the meditation part. 

You can change your experience in this world by simply getting quiet inside. Not once or twice, but daily. Within you is the power to fine tune your mind and really make it yours. Arrange it the way you want it, and watch the domino effect of stability and balance permeate every nook and cranny of your existence.

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