Your brain is composed of about 100 billion neurons. These cells communicate with each other by sending electro-chemical signals: Energy travels down the cell’s long axon into the synapse or gap between neurons; there is takes a chemical ferry-ride on a neurotransmitter, crossing the gap to the next neuron’s dendrite, where it resumes its travel as an electrical charge. The whole process, dendrite to cell body to axon to synapse, takes less than five-hundredths of a second. Imagine the activity of 100 billion neurons sending electrical pulses flowing through your brain! These synchronized pulses are measured by EEGs; they range from less than one pulse per second, or Hz, to more than 32 Hz. Brainwaves correspond to states of consciousness, moving from the slowest delta waves during deep sleep to fastest-paced gamma waves during peak spiritual experiences. Here’s a breakdown:
Delta waves, 0.3-4 Hz (or pulses per second), are the brainwaves of deep sleep. When we are running delta waves, we have lost conscious contact with the “real” world. Delta sleep is associated with hormonal activity that promotes growth and relaxation, and deep delta-wave sleep is essential for healing. Infants have a lot of delta wave activity, even when they are awake. In fact children up to age five still sometimes experience delta wave activity when they are awake. Delta wave sleep decreases as we age. Adolescents experience a decrease in delta sleep; another decline happens in the 40s and the tapering off continues after that.
Theta waves, at 5-8 Hz, are the brainwaves adults experience during deep meditation, hypnosis, and sleep (but not deep sleep). Young children up to age seven typically cannot access brainwaves faster than theta, even while they are fully awake. The magical thinking of young children is aligned with this brainwave pattern; even as adults, when we use theta wave frequencies we are not using critical thinking or deductive reasoning. This partly explains how post-hypnotic suggestions work. It also explains how negative messages we received as children continue to haunt us during our adult lives—they were accepted uncritically and became our reality. Fortunately, it is possible to use theta waves (via hypnosis or meditation) to reprogram those harmful messages!
Alpha waves, at 8-15 Hz, are the brainwaves of “chill”. Calm and relaxed, these brainwaves represent our brain at rest. They are associated with being “in the now” and are good for harnessing the mind-body connection. Alpha waves are used with memory recall; this is why people sometimes use hypnosis to find lost items. Accessing calm alpha waves during learning actually increases our ability to concentrate and learn.
Beta waves, at 16-31 Hz, represent the bulk of our waking consciousness. These are the frequencies associated with normal wakefulness, work, and conversation. Beta waves are subdivided into low-beta, beta, and high-beta. High-beta waves are associated with highly complex thought and also with anxiety. Beta waves generally are inefficient as they burn more energy than the lower-frequency waves. They are also less associated with creativity and creative problem solving.
Gamma waves are the highest-frequency brainwaves are, at 32-42 Hz. Researchers originally thought these fast-paced waves were anomalies. Analog EEG machines couldn’t even measure these fast-paced waves. Now we have come to understand that gamma waves are associated with peak spiritual experiences like universal love and altruism. While everyone experiences gamma waves, some do so more often than others. People who experience a high rate of gamma activity are found to be more intelligent, compassionate, and happy, with better memory recall and greater self control.
It is possible to train your brain to run healthier brainwave patterns. We can learn to get out of the taxing, normal, and stress-related beta wave patterns and into healthier alpha, theta, and even gamma frequencies through regular practice. The internet is full of great music that is designed to elicit specific brainwaves; binaural beats or isochronic tones use specific frequencies to help you access these beneficial brainwave patterns. I like the ones here for sleep and here for meditation.
Meditation is a technique that can help you train your brain to relax. When we meditate we use alpha and theta waves; experience may lead to increasing gamma wave activity. Meditation can be thought of as simply a way to deliberately harness slower brainwaves. The idea that meditation must be an arduous task of not-thinking is misleading and may keep beginners from giving it a try. If you are thinking of embarking on a meditation practice you may want to consider this: No rules, just RELAX and enjoy.