Considering that most of the readers would be familiar with the four (now five) levels of mind (aka states of mind) this article is relative concise – yet necessary, since the subsequent article on this very blog requires a more-than-sketchy understanding of this subject.
A brainwave (not the bright ideas that management gurus talk about) is simply put – an electrical impulse in the brain. They are produced by synchronized electrical pulses from bunches of neurons (the latest estimate is there are about 100 billion of them in the brain) communicating with each other. Whether there is a thought, emotion or behavior, the primary action is communication between the neurons within our brains.
Brainwaves are detected by placing specific sensors on the scalp and measured using an electroencephalogram (EEG) which records the electrical activity of the brain. They are divided into bandwidths to describe their functions (below), but are best thought of as a continuous spectrum of consciousness; from slow, loud and functional - to fast, subtle, and complex.
Like sound frequencies, brain waves are measured in Hz, or cycles per second (cps). These have been classified into five different types (or levels of mind) – four at first, with a fifth level being added in the past decade or so. The four levels of mind documented are beta, alpha, delta and theta. Gamma has been the fifth (and recent) addition, very little is known as yet and it is being researched, however I do have a theory of sorts which I have put forth in this article for your perusal.
The higher the frequency of your brain waves, the higher is the level of mind and vice versa. The higher the level of mind, the higher is the conscious activity (or hyperactivity). Generally, the slower the frequency of your brain waves, the more relaxed you feel. A lower level of mind is a healthier level of mind and meditation, neurofeedback, hypnosis, and guided imagery have all been shown to help people control their brain waves more efficiently for better health, greater performance, and a more positive experience of life.
The Beta state which is our normal state as adults during most of our waking hours, is where the brain operates at the highest frequency, except for the Gamma state of abnormally high brain activity. This is the state where we are awake and alert or perhaps have taken some drugs or chemicals such as benzodiazepines or caffeine. It is essential for our survival and our day to day activities to a certain extent. Note that being awake does not mean you are attentive.
The Alpha state is associated with a relaxed, daydreaming state of mind. As children, until the age of 7 or 8, we would have been in this state 80% of our waking hours, but this keeps reducing until as adults, we probably spend only 20% of our waking hours in this state of mind. As mentioned earlier, Nirmiti Nidra, meditation techniques, pranayama, neurofeedback, progressive muscle relaxation, hypnosis and guided imagery all lead you to this stage of relaxation. In fact, the Alpha state is the gateway to all of them, whereby a few of them including Nirmiti Nidra can lead you to a deeper state of mind, called Theta. The Alpha state is also considered by almost all experts to be the initial link between the conscious and the subconscious mind.
The Theta state, the state in which most little children and newborns are, is associated with deeper states of meditation, spiritual experiences or higher states of consciousness. The subconscious mind is predominant whereas the conscious mind retreats significantly. Intuitive insights are common (for example, Mozart is known to have stated that a composition would come to him all at once with complete clarity and in its entirety when he was in a deep contemplative or meditative state; all he had to do was write it down on paper). This state is also associated with the REM state of sleep, where dreams occur and considered a reservoir of creativity, waiting to be tapped into.
The Delta state is the sleep state, where there is little or no conscious activity. Only the unconscious rules. Delta waves adjourn external awareness and are the source of empathy. Healing and regeneration are said to be stimulated in this state, which is perhaps why deep restorative sleep is so much of a prerequisite to any healing process. If the Alpha state is the link to the subconscious, the Theta state is the bridge helping you cross over to the subconscious, and the Delta state (if adults could achieve this) is the bridge that helps you cross over to the collective unconscious (as Carl Jung calls it).
The Gamma state was hitherto unknown since analog EEG was restricted to measuring and recording rhythyms upto 25 Hz. With the onset of digital EEG, higher frequences could be measured and recorded. Although the earliest known case appears to be in 1964, it did not get much attention until about a decade ago. A lot of research is currently undertaken and not much is known about this state.
Gamma brainwaves are the fastest of brain waves and relate to simultaneous processing of information from different brain areas. Yet, the mind has to be quiet to access it, and not agitated as in the case of the Beta state. This means that quieting the mind or attaining deepest levels of meditation/relaxation could actually trigger off a Gamma state. Some researchers have speculated that Gamma relates to expanded consciousness. Researchers have also found that it is associated with bursts of insight and high-level information processing.
A 2004 study of Tibetan Buddhist monks, who were long-term practitioners of meditation revealed that, when the monks were told to generate an objective feeling of compassion during meditation, their brain activity began to fire in a rhythmic, coherent manner, suggesting neuronal structures were firing in harmony. This was observed at a frequency of 25–40 Hz, the rhythm of gamma waves. These gamma-band oscillations in the monk’s brain signals were the largest seen in humans.
All of the above seem to suggest that the Gamma state (when attained) possibly leads to superconsciousness or universal consciousness or spiritual ascension, but neuroscientists are not necessary convinced.
Four curious points you may wish to particularly note:
You cannot attain an Alpha state deliberately with your eyes open. It is only with your eyes closed, yet being alert that you attain Alpha. However, there are certain occassions where you can be in Alpha whilst watching TV or a movie, during which you may experience ’spontaneous imagery’. Another example is in an ATM queue (not uncommon these days) you are staring at something whereas your mind is focussed elsewhere – this is also a state of Alpha. Boredom or daydreaming with eyes open can also lead to Alpha. Under hypnosis and Nidra, you can attain Alpha with your eyes open.
You are alert in both Beta and Alpha. However, in Beta, your attention often drifts or wanders, in Alpha it is more focussed with occassional lapses and in Theta, it is extremely focussed.
Time distortion occurs as you get into deeper, healthier states of mind. In Alpha, you have already lost some sense of time, in Theta – you would have no clue whatsoever. You may think that a few minutes have passed whereas it could easily be an hour.
One of the early researchers, Elmer Green of the Menninger Clinic in Kansas, used biofeedback instruments to study Eastern yogis. He discovered that certain yogis could control their internal states merely through meditation and thought. The one thing their subjects had in common when they were controlling involuntary body functions, was that they were in the alpha or theta states of mind.
There is no doubt at all that Alpha and Theta states are the gateways to your subconscious mind. Once you have accessed it in these states, your subconscious mind willingly accepts suggestions and commands. Suggestions and commands to your subconscious mind are maximum in Theta, optimal in Alpha and relatively ineffective in Beta.
The author, Rajesh Seshadri, is an internationally recognized Certified Leadership Coach, Certified Success Coach and Certified Life Coach. He is also a NLP Master Practitioner, facilitator and therapist. The basket of therapies is holistic and integrative adopting techniques from Psychotherapy, NLP, Silva, Gestalt, Hypnosis and Silva UltraMind. Additionally, he is a seasoned corporate professional who continues to serve as a whole-time Director and Board Member. You can contact him here.