Brainwaves: What They Are and What They Do
Brainwaves are the collection of electrical activity in the brain. This electrical activity is caused by the communication of neurons in the brain. The communication between neurons enables various bodily activities such as coordinated thought, homeostasis, and muscle movement. Neurons can also convert electrical signals to chemical signals to further differentiate the various activities the brain must control.
The Importance of Brainwaves
Brainwaves are the basis of everything we experience internally. Thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and interactions with our environment is governed by neural communication. Movement, homeostatic mechanisms, and other physiological occurrences are all due to neural communication. Brainwaves are products of these collections of communications. By exploiting brainwaves, abnormalities in brain function can be diagnosed, and different avenues in treatment can be explored. By more readily understanding brainwaves, we can turn that knowledge into further understanding how the brain communicates through neurons and what those biological conversations can tell us about normal brain function.
Types of Brainwaves
There are five main types of brainwaves that occur at various stages of brain activity. High-frequency brainwaves occur during periods of time when an individual is highly alert and concentrated. Inversely, low-frequency brainwaves occur when an individual is relaxed, or asleep. This makes sense because of how much energy and communication is required in order for an individual to be alert. In more highly active states, high-frequency brainwaves are reflective of the vast amount of neural communication needed to keep active.
These waves can be recorded and measured through the use of an EEG machine. An EEG, or Electroencephalography Machine, is a device that measures electrical brain activity through electrodes placed on an individual’s scalp. It is most commonly used as a diagnostic tool for epilepsy, but it also serves numerous other purposes. The EEG measures electrical activity through identifying voltage fluctuations. The voltage fluctuations are due to neuron activity caused by ion current changes as messages are sent throughout the brain by its neurons.
1. Gamma Waves (25-100 Hertz)
Gamma waves are the highest frequency brain wave. They are measured in the range of 25-100 Hertz, although they are mostly measured at 40 Hertz. As mentioned above, higher frequency waves are correlated with elevated neural activity. High neural activity occurs during formation of ideas, language and memory processing, and various types of learning, so it is no surprise gamma waves are present.
Gamma waves can also be observed in very highly concentrated states of deep meditation. This is perhaps why many individuals experience mind expansion when meditating. The high brain activity matched with a very low resting physiological state can allow for deeper thought than what humans normally experience.
2. Beta Waves (12-38 Hertz)
Beta waves are the second highest frequency brain wave. They are measured in the range of 12-38 Hertz. These waves are indicative of normal activity in the brain when we are conscious and alert. Most of our lives are spent in this type of brain wave, which is also why abnormalities in beta waves can be linked to various mental illnesses.
Individuals lacking beta wave activity can experience depression and ADHD. Lower brain activity can make it hard for individuals to focus and engage with the surrounding environment, which has a direct impact on mood. However, individuals with stronger than average beta wave activity can likely experience stress, anxiety, and insomnia. Insomnia is particularly interesting because it also has a relationship with a number of alpha waves.
Beta wave oscillations are present in patients with Parkinson’s disease, and research is currently being done to explore this correlation. Some hypotheses are trying to manipulate deep brain stimulation in order to regulate beta waves in cortical areas that are most commonly effected by Parkinson’s. In clinical trials, the regulation of beta waves has been shown to decrease the symptomatic tremors that are characteristic of the disease.
3. Alpha Waves (8-12 Hertz)
Alpha waves occur in the conscious state just like gamma and beta waves. However, alpha waves are measured at 8-12 Hertz, and are seen when not much information processing is required. Most often, these waves are present just before an individual drifts into sleep, or just as they are waking up in the morning.
Interestingly, the moment that an individual closes their eyes, the brain begins to produce more alpha waves. This can be tied to the change in light exposure to the brain through the eyes, as well as the evidence for why humans sleep when the sun goes down.
Alpha waves and insomnia, as alluded to above, can be partially explained by the lower conductance of alpha waves in a brain that experiences insomnia. Higher beta waves make it harder for an individual to get to a relaxed state, and low alpha waves also make drifting off into sleep more difficult.
4. Theta Waves (3-8 Hertz)
Theta waves are a very low-frequency brain wave. Measured at 3-8 Hertz, theta waves are most often seen during light sleep and REM sleep. Theta waves can also be present during extreme relaxation, or in a suggestible hypnotic state. Theta waves are also extremely important in memory consolidation.
The transition from engaging with our surrounding environment through our senses, to just focusing on inner body sensations is also tied to increases theta wave concentration. When asleep, or in a twilight state, our body no longer processes outer stimuli and instead changes gears to maintain vital bodily functions.
5. Delta Waves (0.2-3 Hertz)
Delta waves are the lowest frequency wave and occur in very deep, dreamless sleep. These waves are measured at 0.2-3 Hertz. When experiencing delta waves, you are completely unconscious. When dominant, these waves outline a state in which the body is able to recover from activities of the previous day. Essentially, the body is taking advantage of this low activity in order to reset and prepare for the coming day. Not experiencing enough time in a sleep state dominated by delta waves accounts for feeling tired the following day or days.
Ride Your Brainwaves
Understanding brainwaves is an good way to become more aware of your brain function. Abnormalities in each type of brainwaves can be very helpful when trying to diagnose and treat diseases. Being that brainwaves are the product of neural communication, any insight to how your brain talks to itself, as well as the rest of your body, is extremely important to furthering neuroscience research. Although, it is also relevant to personal growth as well.
Perhaps now knowing a little bit about the different type of brainwaves, and when in our conscious states they are present, you can try to more actively engage in activities that heighten the their concentration. Try to reach more gamma waves through exploring mediation or engaging in higher level cognitive tasks. Enhance your likelihood of increased alpha waves by dimming your lights, or putting away your cell phone before bed. Explore how your personal behavior impacts your brain, and hopefully
Jacquelyn is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. She is studying both Neuroscience and Psychology, and earning a minor in Chemistry. Jacquelyn is particularly interested in neuromuscular research and neurobiological diseases related to aging, and hopes to apply her passions to future functional neuroscience research.