The human brain is powered by electricity. Ok, that’s a touch dramatic, but also surprisingly close to the truth. The neuron cells most used in the brain ‘communicate’ with each other through an electrical activity that can be quite shocking (pun intended) to think about. Each of these electric messages sent between neuron groupings is called ‘brain waves’ in scientific parlance, and they’re a critical cornerstone of how the brain works. As science digs deeper and deeper into the different types of brain waves we use, and the overall effects they have on the body, alpha waves are having a moment in the sun. Today we dig deeper into this phenomenon, and what you should know about it.
The 5 Types of Brainwaves
When you take an EEG test to monitor your brain activity, it’s this electronic ‘chatter’ that the machine is recording. Because the pictures generated to look like waves, we get the term brain waves.
There are 5 basic types of brain waves, classified based on their speed of movement. Because electricity is little but a series of frequencies, they use the cycles per second or HZ (hertz) measurement.
Of these, Alpha waves occupy the middle ground. We typically see them generated in the brain when we’re conscious, but not focused on any particular activity. Simply ‘chilling’, as it were. It’s the brain state most associated with wakeful rest when the brain is fresh and invigorated, but not yet working hard. When we unwind and relax, they come to the fore of brain activity. It’s also been linked to the meditative state induced during classic meditation and mindfulness activities. In comparison, we also have:
- Delta: Most associated with dreamless sleep, this is the slowest brain wave
- Theta: This is the brain wave frequency that takes over when you’re either deeply relaxed and about to slip off to sleep, or already in the lighter sleep stages
- Alpha: As mentioned, your calm ‘wakeful rest’ brain frequency
- Beta: This brain wave type is associated with being wide-awake, focused, and alert, but engaged in rote activities that don’t require much processing
- Gamma: The fastest moving type of brain wave, this is used by the brain when it’s digesting information or learning new things. It’s the ‘problem solving’ brain wave type.
It’s important to mention that our minds typically produce more than one brain wave type at a time, it’s simply that a certain frequency will be more or less dominant depending on what we’re doing. Intriguing, there’s some scientific evidence that depression could also be linked to an imbalance of brain wave activity, particularly in the left frontal cortex.
Why Alpha Waves Matter
That’s all well and good, of course, but what does it really mean to you? Meditation, mindfulness, and rest are things that are in short supply for all too many people today. As hectic work pressures, packed schedules, and thousands of demands fracture our attention and pump up our stress, rest and relaxation are often the furthest things from our minds- and our brain waves.
The current theory is that boosting alpha brain wave activity can help reverse-engineer a calmer, healthier state of mind, helping us to wind down the body, and stop the harmful adrenaline-spike and cortisol overproduction loop we’re stuck in, and rediscover a better, more balanced inner state. There’s even a small body of evidence that points to alpha waves being the most favorable for creative output.
Can We Increase Our Alpha Brain Activity?
You’re probably already wondering how you can harness some of those sweet, sweet alpha waves, right? While there’s no immediate hack to induce an ‘alpha state, there is some evidence that we can encourage the brain to switch states through certain activities- meditation being a prime example.
Neurofeedback training is a technique currently being studied for assistance in anxiety and depressive disorders. We won’t dig too deeply into it, but it works by encouraging the participant to respond to their current electrical activity in the brain through monitoring and then actively work to change it to a more favorable outcome. While it’s still in its infancy, it does have some fascinating potential for alternative treatment modalities for anxiety and depression.
Mindfulness practices and meditation training also hold the potential to help people activate these calmer brain states and stop the racing thoughts and panic spirals associated with too much lifestyle stress. Lastly, there’s a limited body of evidence that suggest some supplements, mostly from the adaptogen family like Ashwaganda, and even some of our daily intake of amino acids (notable L-Theanine) can also help encourage the body to slip into a more productive alpha state when life gets too overwhelming. We’re already seeing some interesting brand approaches leveraging this information, including a calming and ‘meditative’ energy drink designed to support the alpha state.
While the research into the impact of different brain wave states is still in its infancy, it has a lot of potentials to provide another approach to health and wellness. Plus, encouraging a relaxed state through boosted mindfulness is never a bad thing in a stressful life, right? We could all do to be less anxious, calmer, and more creative, so keeping alpha wave research on your radar is sure to be a good thing.