Generally speaking, we spend most of our day in a beta brain wave frequency. It’s characterized by active thinking, problem-solving, ruminating, and focus on tasks. Essentially, beta waves signal that you’re in ‘doing mode’. If you close your eyes, you might slip into an alpha state, becoming calm and introspective. Alpha also marks a creative zone, and it’s the one you’re in every night before falling asleep. Meditators demonstrate even slower brainwaves, slipping into increasingly relaxed, yet still alert, theta frequencies. When your brain produces slow delta waves, this generally means you’re in deep, dreamless sleep.
Finally, high-frequency gamma waves often come in brief moments of heightened awareness and insight, like when you bite into delicious food or solve a crossword puzzle, or in ‘a-ha insight’ moments as quite common under the shower (Gamma spikes).
When you change your brainwaves from beta to alpha, you slow down your neocortex (the analytical, thinking brain). As your brainwaves slow down you leave the domain of the conscious mind and enter the realm of the subconscious mind. We could say then, that if you are somewhat conscious and aware but not actively engaged in thought, your consciousness is moving out of the thinking neocortex and entering the midbrain, otherwise known as the subconscious, the home of the autonomic nervous system and the cerebellum. This is where powerful changes can be made. By suppressing the analytical facilities, we shut down the critic in our brain, the neocortex. As your brain waves slow down, and you get beyond your analytical mind, your brain moves into trance and you are more suggestible to information. The inverse is also true. As your brain speeds up, you become more analytical, the brain moves out of trance, and you become less suggestible for information. Suggestibility is your ability to accept, believe, and accept information without analyzing it.
Meditation lowers your brain wave frequencies, while fear & emergency increases your brain wave frequencies.
During childhood brain development an evolution in dominant brainwave patterns can be measured:
Age 2–6 : Children’s brainwave patterns move predominantly into theta. So children at this age and stage in their life are in a hypnotic and highly suggestible state. Due to the delta and theta brainwaves, and the fact that they have not yet developed the analytical mind, in the first six years of a child’s life they are very programmable. Thus, because the editing function of the mind has not yet formed, information goes right into the subconscious mind. Comments like – ‘big boys don’t cry’, ‘little girls should be seen and not heard’, ‘you’re not very good at math’, ‘money is the root of all evil’,… – these are all negative suggestions that begin to subconsciously program a child. If we can negatively influence a child at these early ages with such reinforcements, it makes sense that we can program a child in the opposite way!
Age 6–12 : Children move into alpha, a stage of imagination and wonder. This stage is where children pretend, play make believe, dream of being astronauts and princesses, and so on. This is the realm of the imagination – a very important realm – because during this stage children are as creative as they are easily influenced. They look at the world in wonder, looking at everything with fresh eyes and loving new things (neophilia). Looking at the world with this child-like wonder and fresh eyes is something adults can learn and benefit from enormously to boost their creativity and empathy. Treasure child-like wonder, what is referred to as ‘the beginner’s mind’.
Age 6-25 : A child’s analytical mind gradually starts to form around age 6–8. Around age 12 – when the analytical mind more fully forms – tween’s move into beta. In beta, our attention is predominately on the outer world. This is why it’s important to program children before the analytical mind forms (because it takes very little effort to subconsciously influence them) and why training children with positive suggestions at a young age builds the foundation of who they become later in their life. Risk avoidance analytical thinking is only fully developed by the age 25. That’s when rigidity sets in.
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few. The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion, there is no thought. All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are a true beginner. We can really learn something.
– Shunryu Suzuki, ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’
Non-ordinary states of consciousness is a term defined by John Hopkins psychiatrist Stanislav Grof as dramatic shifts in perception, emotion and thought are the real key to unlocking our creativity. 3 of today’s most familiar non-ordinary states are: Meditation, Flow and Psychedelics – with specific neuroelectric signatures.
In a flow state brain wave patterns in the Alpha/Theta range + Gamma are measured. This indicates brain functioning at the edge of optimal creativity!
Studies show that brain waves in meditation are primarily in the alpha and theta range. Applying neurophenomenology, it’s probable that you’re down-shifting from anxious beta into more tranquil alpha and theta states. But the patterns are different depending on the type of meditation, like Focused Attention (dharana), Good Vibes (metta), Open Monitoring (vipassana), or Mantra. For example, Focused Attention requires more active control, while Mantra is comparatively effortless. Also, the brain waves in meditation may vary based on the skill of the meditator and the amount of time meditating. Although the research is limited, neuroscientists have found remarkable changes in “Olympic-level” meditators who’ve clocked over 12,000 hours of practice. Cutting-edge research found that they produce significantly more gamma brain waves than an average person, even after formally meditating. This study and others suggest that long-lasting altered traits are possible with training. The average person might experience momentary gamma wave activity when an insight comes, but some highly-trained meditators live in this state all the time.
Deep sleep drops you into even slower delta brain waves. You’re basically in a mental blackout during this period. According to Dr. Matthew Walker of UC Berkeley, the slower brain waves during sleep may help bring information between distant brain regions. Amazingly, scientists found that a famous Yogi, named Swami Rama, could maintain conscious awareness while entering deep delta wave sleep. Rama used an ancient Yogic meditation technique (Yoga Nidra), to enter delta sleep while still recalling external events.
It’s important to bear in mind that these technologies, and neuroscience as a field, are in their infancy. EEG has a good temporal resolution (real-time measurement), but lacks spatial resolution, picking up aggregated signals from the outside of the skull. As an analogy, EEG technology is similar to placing a microphone outside of a sports stadium and trying to figure out what’s happening on the field from the cheering of the crowd – it’s helpful but rudimentary. While we can peek under the hood at our inner mental mechanics, we’re still living in the early ages of brain science. Another challenge is how to interpret this data. While it’s helpful to know that brain wave patterns correlate with different states of mind, this doesn’t indicate causation or present a perfect mapping. Although neuroscience still has a long way to go, we can know for sure that significant change occurs in the brain during meditation, sleep, flow states, and other shifts of consciousness, as indicated by our brain waves.
Just recently the neuroscience startup Kernel Neurotech has shipped their first Brain-Computer Interface helmet known as the ‘Kernel Flow’. Just like Elon Musk’s Neuralink, the company Kernel Neurotech was founded in 2016 to explore the world of neuroprosthetics and implantable brain-computer chips to give humans the ability to control machines and computers just with our minds. However unlike Neuralink, which currently focuses on medical devices, Kernel pretty quickly shifted its focus onto building a non-invasive brain-computer interface for average consumers in the form of a simple helmet that you can put onto your head to immediately start quantifying your brain. Their mission is to make neuro measurement mainstream. ‘Kernel Flow’ is a non-invasive, full-coverage, optical (TD-fNIRS) headset that can be used in nearly any environment for recording real-time cortical hemodynamics to establish precise patterns of brain activity. The most near-term functionality of kernel’s revolutionary brain computer interface helmet will be the ability to always know the current state of your mind. For an example, have you slept too long or too little, are you in a creative state of mind in which you could optimally write or draw works of art. The headset would be able to know everything about your brain and automatically derive suggestions on what you should do to better your inner feeling or performance in whatever you want to improve in. The knowledge of when the optimal time is to do so and when it isn’t promises to be a huge improvement at the rate of which you learn things and would save so much time.