Brain waves are electrical patterns that can be observed throughout the cortex (brain). The most common way to measure brain waves is by using a neuroimaging device known as an EEG, an abbreviation for electroencephalogram. Measuring brain waves can help medical professionals and researchers learn about a person’s: level of cortical arousal, state of consciousness (e.g. wakefulness vs. sleep), and/or neuropsychiatric status.
What can we learn from brain waves?
- Arousal: Brain waves determine someone’s level of cortical arousal.
- Neuropsychiatric status: Brain waves can sometimes be used to help diagnose neuropsychiatric conditions like epilepsy and ADHD.
- State of consciousness: Brain waves exhibited during sleep will not be the same as brain waves exhibited while solving a complex mathematical equation.
A person’s brain waves constantly fluctuate throughout the day in accordance with circadian rhythms and environmental stimuli (light/dark, foods, beverages, stressors, medications, etc.). It is thought that there may be a bidirectional relationship between brain waves and neurotransmitter production such that brain waves affect neurotransmitter production, and the production of specific neurotransmitters will influence brain waves. In any regard, there are 5 primary classifications of brain waves oscillating within the cortex.
5 Types of Brain Waves
The five primary classifications of brain waves are as follows: gamma, beta, alpha, theta, and delta. Gamma and beta waves are associated with conscious perception and performance of cognitively-taxing or complex tasks. Alpha waves are associated with daydreaming and eyes-closed meditation. Theta waves and delta waves are associated with REM and non-REM sleep, respectively.
- Gamma (40 Hz+)
- Beta (12-40 Hz)
- Alpha (8-12 Hz)
- Theta (4-8 Hz)
- Delta (0-4 Hz)
No brain waves are inherently superior to others, however, certain brain waves are better than others for specific tasks. For example, if you’re about to take a college test, you’d probably do best with certain frequencies of beta waves – these are associated with problem solving and complex thinking. On the other hand, if you’re overly stressed, you’d probably benefit from increasing your alpha waves – such as by meditating.
The 5 Major Brain Waves (Characteristics)
Included below is a list of all 5 brain waves that can be observed within the human cortex. Whichever brain waves are dominant at any given moment will determine a person’s state of consciousness. Someone with dominant alpha waves will likely feel relaxed and unfocused, whereas someone with dominant delta waves will likely be unaware of his/her surroundings in a state of deep sleep.
Once again, you should know that your brain is able to effectively transition through these brain wave states on its own. That said, there are sometimes brain wave abnormalities in which a person’s brain either: struggles producing a certain type of brain wave OR has difficulty transitioning from one brain wave state to another. These brain wave abnormalities may be indicative of a neuropsychiatric disorder.
Frequencies: 40 Hz+
Gamma brain waves are involved in conscious perception, sensory processing, many aspects of cognition, and REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep. Research suggests that gamma waves are needed for the brain to form mental impressions about its environment. Whenever a person focuses strongly on sensory inputs (sound, sight, taste, smell, touch), gamma waves should be present.
- Too much Gamma: Anxiety, high arousal, stress disorders. If gamma waves are excessive and/or dominant, this may signify some sort of anxiety disorder or neurological condition. Most people will not exhibit too much (i.e. excessive) gamma.
- Too little Gamma: Developmental disorders, schizophrenia. When a person is unable to produce adequate gamma waves, this may signify some sort of neurodevelopmental or neuropsychiatric disorder such as autism or schizophrenia.
- How can you increase gamma waves? There are no specific protocols that are proven to increase gamma brain waves. Some believe that it’s possible to enhance gamma production with meditation due to the fact that advanced meditators commonly exhibit more gamma than average.
Moreover, gamma waves are very active when we learn new information and store that information in short-term and long-term memory. Some individuals hypothesize that the 40 Hz gamma wavelength in particular may be involved in states of peak sensory and/or cognitive performance – especially among meditators. Low levels of 40 Hz and other gamma wavelengths are hypothesized as being more common in persons with learning disabilities and schizophrenia.
Frequencies: 12-40 Hz
Beta brain waves are involved in the promotion of wakefulness and executive function. If you’re awake and reading this article, your dominant brain wave state is likely beta. Beta waves are dominant when problem solving, reading, and writing. Moreover, beta waves increase significantly whenever you drink caffeine or use any form of a stimulant.
- Too much Beta: Anxiety disorders, insomnia, OCD, restlessness, stressful situations. If you consistently have too much beta activity, you may have an underlying anxiety disorder or struggle with managing your stress.
- Too little Beta: ADHD, daydreaming, depression, neurodevelopmental disorder. Individuals with too little beta activity may have attentional deficits, depression, or a neurodevelopmental disorder like autism.
- How can you increase beta waves? The easiest and most efficient way to increase beta waves is to drink a cup of coffee. The caffeine within coffee will stimulate the production of catecholamines, which in turn, will shift your dominant brain wave pattern to beta. Another way to increase beta waves is to read and critically analyze a non-fiction paper.
That said, beta waves also increase when we are highly stressed. Because the frequency range of beta is large (12 Hz to 40 Hz), the specific frequencies that you exhibit within the entire range will determine your conscious experience. High beta (above 16 Hz) is generally associated with anxiety disorders, muscle tension, and constant stress – whereas low beta (below 14 Hz) is associated with calm thinking, self-reflection, and problem solving.
Frequencies: 8-12 Hz
Alpha brain waves are associated with prominent mental and physical relaxation. When a person is both mentally and physically relaxed, chances are good that he/she is in an alpha-dominant brain wave state. When alpha waves are dominant, conscious awareness is usually shifted inward rather than on external stimuli within the environment.
- Too much Alpha: ADHD. If you have too much alpha wave production, you might end up diagnosed with ADHD as a result of excessive daydreaming. Too much alpha can make it difficult for some individuals to pay attention and/or perform certain cognitive tasks.
- Too little Alpha: Anxiety disorder, insomnia, OCD, stress. If you have too little alpha wave production, you may have an underlying anxiety disorder or prone to severe stress.
- How can you increase your alpha waves? A fairly easy way to increase alpha waves is to close your eyes and perform deep, controlled breathing exercises for 5 to 10 minutes. If you’re not stressed, simply closing your eyes for a few minutes should increase your alpha. Most anti-anxiety supplements and medications are thought to increase alpha waves as a result of neurotransmitter changes.
If you’re focusing on something in your environment, you probably aren’t in an alpha-dominant state. Additionally, if you feel stressed or tense, you probably have low alpha and may benefit from increasing your alpha waves. Caffeine consumption is known to reduce alpha production, whereas drinking alcohol and/or ingesting cannabis (e.g. smoking marijuana) are thought to increase alpha wave production.
For most people, alpha waves increase dramatically at night as they transition from wakefulness to sleep. If you’ve ever found yourself watching TV after a long day’s work and began “dozing” – the start of the doze is alpha. At the higher end of the range (above 10 Hz), people may retain conscious awareness of their inner experience, whereas at the lower end of the range (below 10 Hz), it’s difficult to stay conscious unless you’re an advanced meditator. Transcendental meditation (TM) is thought to be one of the most effective forms of meditation for increasing alpha.
Frequencies: 4-8 Hz
Theta waves are associated with the generation of very strong emotions, REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep, and the retrieval of early childhood memories. Some believe that theta waves may foster creative thinking, intuition, and suggestibility. An adult is most likely to exhibit theta waves while he/she is asleep, unconscious, or in very deep meditation.
- Too much Theta: ADHD, depression, personality disorders, PTSD. If you have too much theta production, you may have been diagnosed with ADHD or constantly struggle with paying attention. Depressive disorders, certain personality disorders, and PTSD can sometimes result in too much theta production.
- Too little Theta: Anxiety, personality disorders, PTSD, stress. If you have too little theta production, you may have an anxiety disorder or live a high-stress lifestyle that prevents your brain from shifting down into the theta state.
- How can you increase theta waves? The easiest way to increase your theta waves is to sleep. If you want to increase theta waves while awake, some speculate that sedative hypnotics may prove effective.
In some cases, adults may enter a theta state such as while driving on the highway at night. Drivers who enter the theta state typically will “zone out” and essentially drive on autopilot – being unable to recall portions of their drive. On the other hand, children are understood to exhibit a combination of alpha and theta waves while they’re awake.
Select individuals with ADHD may exhibit pronounced theta waves while they’re awake (eyes open) which impairs their ability to focus and complete tasks. Some individuals may also exhibit too much theta activity as a result of severe depression or PTSD. Adequate generation of theta waves during sleep can improve health, however, theta production while awake can negatively affect most adults.
Frequency: 0-4 Hz
Delta waves are generated during the deepest stages of sleep and are abundant when a person is completely unconscious. A general rule of thumb is that, if you consciously remember any part of your experience – you were not in a delta-dominant state. Sure you can maintain conscious awareness while producing some delta (or even slightly more delta than normal such as during meditation), however, if delta is the dominant brain wave – you most likely won’t recall the experience.
- Too much Delta: ADHD, coma, neurodevelopmental disorders, traumatic brain injury (TBI). Excessive delta production is associated with coma, neurodevelopmental disorders, and serious brain injuries. In some cases, persons with extreme cases of ADHD may exhibit higher-than-typical levels of delta while awake.
- Too little Delta: Autoimmune conditions, sleep disorders. Individuals with autoimmune conditions and sleep disorders may be unable to attain adequate delta at night. In other words, these individuals won’t be entering the deepest, most restorative stages of sleep as often as others. This may result in anxiety, fatigue, inflammatory responses, and/or immune impairment.
- How can you increase delta waves? There’s no definitive way to guarantee that you’ll increase delta waves. Some believe that it’s possible to increase delta production with an optimized sleep regimen that fits your circadian biology. It may also be possible to increase delta production with the administration of specific sleep aids (hypnotics).
Getting enough delta each night during sleep is associated with a quality night’s sleep. If you don’t get sufficient delta sleep, you may have a sleep disorder. Individuals who are able to enter delta wave sleep on a regular basis may exhibit superior sleep efficiency (greater rejuvenation from less total sleep) than persons who don’t get as much delta.
It should be noted that individuals with developmental disorders and/or traumatic brain injuries may produce too much delta in certain regions of the brain while awake. This can interfere with cognitive performance because it’s essentially blocking faster brain waves like beta that are needed for cognitive processing. Moreover, it is known that younger-aged people (babies, children, and even early-teenagers) generate more delta waves on average than adults and elderly individuals.
Are there any other brain waves than the 5 mentioned above?
Although the 5 brain wave types mentioned above are all you really need to know, some insist that there should be additional classifications for “hyper gamma” and “epsilon” waves.
- Hyper-gamma (100-200 Hz): Certain researchers classify gamma brain waves between 100 and 200 Hz as “hyper gamma.” Most people in the general population will not exhibit a brain wave state dominated by hyper gamma. Hyper gamma waves are most commonly produced by advanced meditators in extraordinary states of consciousness, compassion, focus, and peak performance.
- Epsilon (0.25-0.5 Hz): Ultra-low frequency brain waves within the delta range may be referred to by some as epsilon waves. It is thought that an epsilon-dominant state might only occur in advanced meditators (e.g. monks that have meditated daily for decades). The specific benefits associated with epsilon dominance are not known, but are likely analogous to those attained during sleep.
Can some people have atypical brain waves?
Yes. Many people have brain wave abnormalities such that they either overproduce or underproduce a specific frequency. In other cases, certain individuals are unable to efficiently shift through all 5 brain wave states. For example, a person with extremely high stress may experience “alpha blocking” such that their brain waves jump from a stressed-out state of beta straight to theta/delta – without ever entering alpha.
It is also somewhat common for individuals with neuropsychiatric disorders like epilepsy to exhibit unpredictable changes in brain wave activity as a result of their condition. Moreover, any medications that people consistently ingest on a regular basis can affect their brain waves. Even certain foods like garlic are thought to shift certain frequencies of brain waves.
Do you suspect that you have any brain wave abnormalities?
If you suspect that you have brain wave abnormalities, what do you think the abnormalities are? Although you may suspect abnormalities with your brain waves, unless you’ve actually had an EEG reading, you shouldn’t go around telling people that you have “too much” or “too little” of a particular wave – because you really won’t know. Only a medical professional can help you determine if your brain wave activity appears normal. If you’ve already had a brain wave analysis, feel free to share the findings in the comments section below.