Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Altered States of Consciousness: Gamma, Beta, Alpha, Theta and Delta

Image credit: Rob Boudon

The brain goes through some pretty amazing changes of consciousness during a 24-hour period. Each state does something different for the brain, allowing it a full range of function and flexibility. And each comes with its own set of brainwaves, from fast and directly conscious to slow and entirely unaware of what's going on in the waking world.

Let's explore brain waves, their differences and what each accomplishes for your mind and health.

What Brain Waves Are

Brain waves are defined as neural oscillations – back-and-forth motions that happen within the central nervous system. Generally, they occur in rhythmic patterns, somewhat like music. They are caused by communication between neurons. These communications collect into larger groups and create the form of brain waves we're familiar with: alpha, beta, theta, delta and gamma.

On a macroscopic (large and measurable) level, the communications synchronize so that different parts of the brain are communicating with one another. These macroscopic brain waves are what are measurable on an electroencephalogram, or EEG. They show up as spikes and “valleys” on the graph that records them.

The Five Macroscopic Brain Wave Patterns

Each of these five major forms of brain waves performs a different function and creates a different state of consciousness. Here's what they do:

Gamma waves – Gamma waves have only recently been discovered. They are the fastest of the brain wave patterns, above 40 Hz. They are associated with “quick bursts” of insight, with so-termed epiphanies and high-level information processing.

Beta waves – Beta waves are quite fast, oscillating at approximately 14-40 Hz. These are the waves associated with full consciousness. They are necessary to maintain an alert state, logic and critical thinking. Beta waves “get you through your day.” They allow you to fully know what's going on and to respond to events in your day in a logical and safe manner.

Alpha waves – Alpha is known as the “deep relaxation” state. Alpha operates more slowly than beta, at 7.5-14 Hz. Most people slip temporarily into alpha during the day without realizing it. When we daydream, that's an example of the alpha state. We are also in alpha when we're in a light state of meditation. Alpha is necessary to access the subconsciousness, while still maintaining a degree of alert consciousness.

Theta waves – We reach theta when in a state of very deep meditation or during the very first stages of light sleep. Theta waves operate at 4-7.5 Hz. Not many people are able to reach theta during meditation, but those who are say they access amazing parts of the subconsciousness this way.

Delta waves – Delta (0.5-4 Hz) is associated with deep sleep. It is the slowest of the brain wave patterns. The deepest subconsciousness is accessed during delta. This brain wave pattern is necessary for the ultimate relaxation we need in order to achieve healing and regeneration of the mind. It may also be associated with overall healing of the body.

With the possible exception of gamma, each of these brain wave patterns is necessary in order to “exercise” your brain. Studies show that individuals deprived of the deepest of them (theta and delta) suffer in any variety of ways, particularly the emotions, concentration during the day, and overall organization of thoughts while awake.
Not only are these states natural, they're necessary for your overall health and wellbeing. Altered states aren't anything new-agey or strange. They're normal, and can deliver amazing insights as well as deep relaxation to rejuvenate you...inside and out.