All thinking in the brain is the result of electrical signals that can be observed with an EEG (electroencephalograph). These signals appear as waves, and they vary in frequency depending on what our brains are doing.
There are five different types of brain wave and each wave serves a different purpose and helps us in various situations. It’s important to note that there is no “best” brainwave as too much or too little of any wave can be harmful. All five waves occur simultaneously, but in certain situations, one particular wave is more dominant. When trying to learn a new concept, for example, it’s better when Alpha waves are more influential.
The five types of brainwave (from highest to lowest frequency) are:
The fastest (40Hz – 100Hz) waves are gamma waves, and they are most dominant when we’re processing information. They help us to perceive the world around us and also to form memories. Gamma waves are good at sensory-binding and can link information throughout the entire brain.
People with high levels of gamma waves tend to be better at problem solving, but also more anxious and with increased stress levels. A low amount of gamma waves can point to ADHD, depression or the learning difficulties.
Neuroscientist Sean O’Nuallain (2004) hooked Tibetan Monks up to EEG machines and found that the more experienced meditators showed significantly more gamma waves than novices.
Beta waves (12Hz – 40Hz) are mostly present during deliberate thinking. They help us to build focus and complete tasks more easily. Beta waves are associated with states of alertness, concentration and focus. They are the dominant wave for most people throughout the day.
People who are quick-witted or rapid thinkers tend to have brains that produce extra beta waves. Smart drugs (nootropics) all increase beta waves and elevated levels of beta waves result in enhanced performance.
As with gamma waves, high beta waves can cause to anxiety and higher levels of stress.
Beta waves are increased by energy drinks, coffee and other stimulants.
Alpha waves (8Hz – 12Hz) are critical for creative pursuits as they help to bridge the gap between our conscious and subconscious minds. Alpha waves are dominant while we are daydreaming and during relaxation. They are linked to relaxation, drowsiness and improved moods. Knowing this, it’s not surprising to learn that alcohol, marijuana and antidepressants can increase the dominance of alpha waves.
Alpha waves bridge the gap between our sleeping and waking states.
Theta waves (4Hz – 8Hz) are linked to subconscious processing and experiencing emotions. Very few adults show theta activity while they are aware, they generally only show up during sleep. However, children tend to have much higher levels of theta activity than adults.
It’s suggested by some researchers that theta waves help to solidify our understanding of concepts and improve our learning. Break times and recess for children is so incredibly important as it allows the brain to process the information that it’s just learned. Unfortunately, particularly in the UK, any time not utilised by learning is seen as wasted time. This practice of giving homework for every subject every night is dangerous as it can actually harm learning if the child doesn’t have the time to relax.
Theta waves are associated with low levels of arousal and can contribute toward feelings of depression.
Delta waves (0Hz – 4Hz) are the lowest frequency and are strongly associated with deep relaxation and sleep. Delta waves are responsible for helping up rejuvenate properly while resting and give us restorative and satisfying sleep.
They are produced in the deep stages of sleep and play a role in regulating unconscious bodily processes.
While we sleep our brains repeat our experiences of the day, including any learning, so that they are more deeply ingrained in our heads. For this reason a good night’s sleep is incredibly important if you want to learn.