Alpha waves are associated with the relaxed state of the mind. You can greatly benefit from them and even train your brain to produce them. This will help you achieve maximum concentration, awareness and relaxation.
Imagine for a second that you are sitting on a sandy beach, or under a tree staring far into the horizon. Or maybe you are in your easy chair at home, relaxed and with no particular task in mind. Now imagine being involved in doing your taxes or driving in heavy traffic late for an appointment. Or stressing out over a project that you should finish next week but still haven’t even started. If you can bring to mind the different qualities the experiences of those mental states have, then you are off to a good start in understanding alpha waves and other types of brain waves.
Your brain is made up of billions of neurons that use electricity to communicate with one another. This communication between them is directly related to all thoughts, emotions and activities. Brainwaves, or neural oscillations, are a result of the synchronized activity of a large number of neurons which are connected as parts of a neural ensemble.
Through feedback connections between them, the firing patterns of those neurons become synchronized. This interaction gives rise to oscillatory activity that can, in turn, be detected macroscopically with the use of an electroencephalogram (EEG). Because of their cyclical, repetitive nature, they have been called brain waves.
Different Types of Brain Waves
Different neural ensembles are firing when we are engaged in a mental or physical task. This means that the frequency of those brain waves will vary accordingly.
The states mentioned above, namely the relaxed daydreaming state (also called “the default mode”, a term coined by Marcus Raichle), are examples of the Alpha and Beta brainwave frequencies respectively. In these states, the mind wanders fluidly from topic to topic without any single thought demanding a response and the stay-on-task mode which has been called “the central executive” by researchers.
There are more types of brain oscillations except for these two. So here is a short mention of their names, their frequencies and what experiences they are related to.
Alpha Waves (8-13.9Hz)
Relaxation, increased learning, relaxed awareness, light trance, increased serotonin production.
Pre-sleep and pre-waking drowsiness, meditation. Beginning to access unconscious mind.
Beta Waves (14-30Hz)
Concentration, alertness, conversation, cognition,arousal.
Higher levels associated with anxiety, disease, fight or flight mode.
Theta Waves (4-7.9Hz)
Dreaming (REM sleep), deep meditation, increased production of catecholamines (vital for learning and memory).
Hypnagogic imagery, feeling of disembodiment, deep meditation.
Delta Waves (0.1-3.9Hz)
Dreamless sleep, production of human growth hormone.
Deep trance-like nonphysical state, loss of body awareness.
Gamma Waves (30-100+ Hz)
Being in the “zone”, transcendental experiences, bursts of insight, feelings of compassion.
Unusually high brain activity, loving-kindness meditation.
In the 60s and 70s with the creation of biofeedback technology, a technique used to consciously alter brain waves using the feedback provided by an EEG type machine, alpha waves gained a lot of attention.
When those oscillations are present, your brain is clear of unwanted thoughts. You are generally experiencing a state of relaxed awareness. When attention shifts to a specific thought, those waves tend to disappear. This is when the brain shifts to higher frequency beta waves.
It is easy to see why one would want to learn how to increase alpha brainwaves. They are connected with increased creativity, reduced feelings of stress and depression, increased communication between the brain hemispheres, increased learning and problem-solving, improved mood and stability of emotions.
So how can we increase our brain’s production of alpha waves?
Apart from the aforementioned biofeedback technologies, any activity that brings about a relaxed sense of well-being is connected with increased alpha waves. Those include but are not limited to the following:
Studies have shown how the positive benefits of yoga are associated with alpha brainwave production. A decrease in serum cortisol during yoga exercise is correlated with alpha wave activation.
When two sine waves of a frequency lower than 1500hz and a difference lower than 40hz between them are presented to the listener one in each ear, the auditory illusion of a third tone will appear that has a frequency equal to the difference between the two tones. This is called a binaural beat.
Listening to binaural beats in the alpha wave range is said to help synchronize the brain with that frequency.
A 2015 study on the relation of physical exercise on alpha brainwaves has shown that alpha waves increased following intense physical exercise.
Those are good methods to relax your entire body and to allow your mind to quiet down. The resulting feeling of deep relaxation is connected with alpha brainwave activity.
While still a controversial subject, a controlled placebo study done in the 90s with EEGs has shown “an increase of EEG alpha power, correlating with intense euphoria, was found after smoking marihuana“.
Nothing has shown such a clear connection to alpha waves as practicing mindfulness and meditation. More experienced practitioners can generate even slower brainwaves than alpha. Studies have shown Buddhist monks generating gamma brain waves by focusing on feelings of compassion. Even the reduction of external stimuli by closing your eyes has shown an increase in alpha brainwaves. Deepening your breath has a similar effect on your brain.
So start by observing the subtle changes that occur when you close your eyes. Try to take three conscious deep breaths and open your eyes again. What differences do you feel? Being able to recognize the different quality of this alpha wave state and to actively pursue it is more important than anything else in that direction.
Most of us are involved in a hectic way of life that pushes us in a constant stressful and anxious state. For this reason, practicing mindfulness and meditation is probably the greatest tool we possess towards that goal right now.