Are you riding the alpha wave?

Your brain is a busy place. The average human skull contains up to 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons, that make up the brain’s active circuits. All of those neurons communicate with each other by sending electrical and chemical signals, like billions of tiny voices chattering with each other and passing along messages. Your brain is so busy that when you’re at rest it uses up 18% of the oxygen you take in, even though it only makes up 2% of your body weight. 1

One way to measure all that activity is through the use of an electroencephalogram, or EEG. First used by psychiatrists in the 1920s, an EEG is a record of the brain’s electrical activity, taken via electrodes placed on the scalp. (The instrument that does the recording is an electroencephalograph, and good luck not getting the terms confused.) While the signals of individual neurons are too small to measure*, the EEG detects the brain’s aggregated activity, and displays it as lines on a graph which speed up when activity is high and slow down when activity is low. Those wavy lines have come to be known as brainwaves. 2,3

“In the same sort of way that blood pulses through the network of your arteries and veins, electrical energy pulses through your nervous system,” says Sean Hagberg, PhD, VP Research at Feelmore Labs, Inc. “When you change your breathing or activity level, blood flow changes. Similarly, when you change your mental activity, for example from hard concentration on a math problem to relaxed resting, the electrical activity in your brain changes.”

Active brain waves

The alphabet of cognition

In a way, the chatter of our billions of brain cells seems to be less like the noise of a crowd, and more like the call-and-response of a choir. Early on, scientists studying brainwaves noticed that the peaks and valleys of an EEG show repeating patterns. 4 The surges and dips come more rapidly at certain times, and less often at others, as large groups of neurons send their electrical signals at about the same rate. The most prominent patterns were eventually given names, and found to be associated with particular states of consciousness. The delta brainwave, which shows the slowest oscillation on an EEG, occurs when we’re in deep, dreamless sleep. At the other end of the scale are the beta and gamma brainwaves, which rise and fall at a faster pace and are seen when we’re mentally focused on solving a problem or processing information. 2,5 “In general, if you’re working hard at a mental task, the more prominent the higher frequency activity. And the more relaxed you are, the more prominent the lower frequency brain waves,” says Dr. Hagberg.

Among the distinct brainwaves that scientists have identified, it may be the alpha wave that gets the most press. (Note: the brainwaves were named after Greek letters, in the order they were discovered.) Alpha waves are prominent when we’re conscious but relaxed. We’re in an alpha wave state when we’re daydreaming, not thinking of anything in particular, and our mind is free of unwanted thoughts. That’s a pretty appealing state to be in, and one that can be hard to achieve when most of us have many screens, devices, and responsibilities that clamor for our attention. “Whenever we bring cognitive attention to some stimulus, we’re generating increased beta activity,” says Dr. Hagberg. “The demands from multiple stimuli, often simultaneously, work against relaxation and being present.” Spending too much time out of an alpha state can be taxing, he adds. “It’s a burden, as the constant beta activity has a higher energy cost. It’s easy to feel worn out from the constant assault on our attention.”

Portrait of a handsome older man sitting on a sofa.

State of grace

Given all that, the appeal of alpha waves seems pretty clear. But research has turned up other potential advantages of bringing more alpha into your life. For example, in one study researchers stimulated alpha wave activity in a group of volunteers using a weak electric current, and found that they scored better on a creativity test during the alpha wave state. 6 Another study found that inducing alpha waves in a similar way decreased symptoms of depression. 6a Researchers have also found that alpha waves were associated with pain relief, reduced anxiety, and improved understanding of difficult-to-hear speech. 7,8,9 People with strong alpha waves have even been found to be better at playing video games! 10 While the alpha state once seemed to indicate a state of mental idleness, a newer theory suggests that alpha wave activity suppresses irrelevant activity in the brain. This keep us from paying attention to distractions, preventing information overload. 11,12

We need all types of brainwaves, of course. There are times to be operating full tilt with beta waves, and times when we need the deep sleep of a delta state. But the hustle and bustle of our busy lives can rob us of the alpha time we need—especially at the end of a busy day. “Being able to quiet one’s mind is a key skill to getting a good night’s sleep,” Dr. Hagberg notes. “As we relax prior to sleep, we have more alpha activity which continues into the first stage of sleep.”

You don’t need a scientist to apply a current to your scalp to generate more alpha brainwaves. Studies show that meditation, mindfulness training, and aerobic exercise can do the trick. 13,4

 

 


 

 

[1] The Annual Review of Neuroscience 11:423–453 (1988)
[2] Casson A.J., Abdulaal M., Dulabh M., Kohli S., Krachunov S., Trimble E. (2018) Electroencephalogram. In: Tamura T., Chen W. (eds) Seamless Healthcare Monitoring. Springer, Cham. doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69362-0_2
[3] https://www.britannica.com/science/brain-wave-physiology
[4] Juri D. Kropotov, in Quantitative EEG, Event-Related Potentials and Neurotherapy, 2009
[5] Psychology Today. psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201504/alpha-brain-waves-boost-creati vity-and-reduce-depression
[6] Role of Frontal Alpha Oscillations in Creativity. Cortex. 2015 June ; 67: 74–82. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2015.03.012.
[6a] Translational Psychiatry volume 9, Article number: 106 (2019) doi.org/10.1038/s41398-019-0439-0
[7] European Journal of Pain, 2016; DOI: 10.1002/ejp.960
[8] Basic Clin Neurosci. 2015 Jan; 6(1): 14–20.
[9] Journal of Neuroscience, 2015; 35 (4): 1458 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3250-14.2015 [10] Psychophysiology, 2012; DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.2012.01474.x
[11] Trends in Neurosciences Volume 37, ISSUE 7, P357-369, July 01, 2014
[12] Current Biology, 2012; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.029
[13] . The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2009; 15 (11): 1187 DOI: 10.1089/acm.2009.0113