Neuroscience 101 - What Are Brain Waves and How You Can Influence Them

Caroline de Braganza

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(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

This may shock to you, but there are electric currents, oscillating at different frequencies to create overall brain wave patterns inside your brain.

Further on, you will master a few letters of the Greek alphabet - Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Theta - and not in that order. (I don’t understand why neuroscientists didn’t name the sequence alphabetically.)

Before we go there, let me explain what’s happening in your brain.

The Neural Landscape

Your brain cells don’t operate in a vacuum. You need a minestrone of neurochemicals. These are essential components of neural (brain) activity; also referred to as neurotransmitters - they send electric nerve impulses across a synapse, the tiny gap between two nerve cells. At the same time, a chemical process occurs.

Your brain contains about 100 Billion neurons (nerve cells) which send information to each other, both electrically and chemically through the 800 trillion ever changing connections. And neurons come in a wide variety of configurations. Wow!

The neural networks or pathways of these transmissions can adjust, adapt and improve. You have the power to do that.

There are two components to this brain activity - electrical signals and neurochemicals (neurotransmitters)

Much like a car only operates at optimum performance with oil to lubricate the engine, petrol (gasoline) for the spark plugs to ignite, combust and drive the cylinders in the motor and water in the radiator to keep things cool, so the brain is more efficient with the correct balance of neurochemicals, sending clear signals along the neural networks.

You are the driver; you steer the car in whatever direction you choose from the thoughts you think, the images you paint, the language you use.

Brain Waves

Let’s recap on two of the components I mentioned earlier - the electrical and chemical signals between the neurons. With some 800 trillion ever changing connections happening concurrently, this combination of signals creates an overall pattern superimposed over all this activity - brain waves.

Definition—“apparent telepathic vibration transferring a thought from one person to another with no other medium,” - 1869 (Source: Online Etymology Dictionary)

They were onto something there, although they didn’t know it.

It would be another 50 years before German neurologist Hans Berger discovered brain waves in 1924.

Though Berger’s path to this discovery began because he wanted to record what he thought was psychic energy in the brain, he eventually narrowed his focus and successfully made the first recording of electrical waves in the brain: an electroencephalogram, or EEG. This can assist in the diagnosis of epilepsy, sleep conditions, Alzheimer’s, and other issues related to brain functioning.” - goodtherapy.org

The Fantastic Five

No comic book characters here - this is for real.

As with sound waves and radio waves, so too is the frequency of brain waves measured in Hz. (Hz is the abbreviation of hertz - the speed at which a wave completes a full cycle in one second.)

A useful yucky mnemonic for remembering the sequence of brain waves from high to low frequency is:

Gather BAT Dung

Let’s do it!

· Gamma Wave (30-100Hz)

This is the highest brain frequency or, if you like, the fastest. It is the best time for active learning, retaining additional information and increasing focus and short-term memory. We associate them with higher levels of cognitive functioning.

· Beta Wave (13-30Hz)

These are present most of the waking day when we are in an alert state of mind for analysing, planning, assessing and categorising. They can also manifest when one is feeling stressed, agitated or afraid.

· Alpha Wave (9-13Hz)

This is when we are in a state of physical and mental relaxation, but still aware of what is happening around us. We are calmer, more peaceful, and grounded. Yoga or a walk in nature create an Alpha state; we become more lucid and reflective, and the left and right hemispheres of the brain are more balanced.

· Theta Wave (4-8Hz)

Now we move from verbal and thinking mode to a more meditative, visual mode where the mind reaches a deeper state of awareness, perhaps feeling drowsy, but with stronger intuition and a greater capacity for complicated problem-solving.

· Delta Wave (1-3Hz)

This is the state of unconsciousness, or deep, dreamless sleep. Tibetan monks who have been meditating for decades can maintain this state even when they are alert and awake! Healing and regeneration occur when the brain is in this state.

(Two brain wave frequencies that are difficult to detect with an EEG are Lambda (>200 Hz) and Epsilon (<0.5 Hz). They are both related to out-of-body experiences or extremely deep states of meditation, rarely present in normal folks like us.)

Brain Waves and Mental Health

The level of activity in your brain predicts which wavelength patterns will predominate, though one wavelength does not exclude another.

What a force field you have in your brain!

As with neurochemicals, so too should there be a balance of brain waves. Any imbalance can manifest as emotional and neuro-physical health problems.

The method used is neurofeedback.

“A therapeutic technique used to monitor and change brain wave patterns to modify behaviors and improve mental health. This therapy teaches individuals to alter the flow of brain waves. In an individual who has depression, for example, the therapist will use sound and visual effects to reward beta waves to help relieve the symptoms of depression.” - goodtherapy.com

This therapy has worked for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, who have redeveloped their ability to perform lost functions such as recognising forgotten relatives.

Other beneficiaries are ADD/ADHD, anxiety, depression, learning disorders, lack of motivation, sensory processing disorders and brain injury or concussion.

Final thoughts

I’ll say it again.

You are the driver; you steer the car in whatever direction you choose from the thoughts you think, the images you paint, the language you use.

This creates new neural pathways and you can maintain balanced brain wave activity.

Sometimes we need a nudge along the way to a healthy mind. If neither Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), meditation, yoga or psychotherapy are doing it for you, neurofeedback therapy may be the boost you need.

Keep going. Keep growing your brain.

Enjoy this video from Smarter Every Day on The Backward Bicycle Experiment:

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