Understanding activity in the brain to help with sleep, stress and focus.
Between studying for finals and trying to get Christmas shopping done, it’s a stressful time of the year. What if there was a way to get at the source of our emotions and thoughts – the brain – and control it so you could achieve a mental state you desired or reduce stress? Mind control sounds a bit more like Stranger Things than real life, but we’re actually getting closer to monitoring brain activity, and in some cases changing or strengthening desirable brain wave patterns.
So what are brain waves and how do we measure them? The brain is made up of billions of specialized cells, some of which are called neurons. Neurons are constantly talking to each other and the electrical activity that emanates from that communication can be detected using a technique called electroencephalography, or EEG, with sensors attached to the scalp that tune into those bursts of energy and record them as waves. The shape of the wave is different at rest than it is when someone is using all of their focus and attention.
Explore our infographic below to learn about the five types of brain waves, and the mental state linked to each one.
What about those times when we feel too focused or vigilant, and would desperately prefer for those flatter brain waves of sleep and rest – is it possible to nudge our waves in one direction or another? Life as a student can be stressful, demanding, and fast-paced. The pressures of school can have a significant impact on mental health and well-being, as evidenced by the alarming increase in burnout among student populations. Controlling our brain waves could help optimize relaxation and productivity.
Read about three ways that you can change your brain waves to get closer to the state you want.
If you want to go super high-tech, there are actually a number of wearables or devices that use neurofeedback. Feedback is like the speedometers on the highway that record how fast you’re going and flash if you’re over the speed limit. This signal feeds back information about your behavior and alerts you to change it, that is, to stop speeding. In a similar way, neurofeedback measures your brain waves and feeds that information back to you in order to reinforce certain patterns of waves and subsequently mental states. These devices are essentially headbands that you can wear while performing a task and they read out your brainwaves so that you can see how active your brain is. So say you’re meditating and the device records relaxing alpha waves. Some devices will playback that information to you in the form of music at the same frequency, while others deliver the actual waveform back to your brain.
These wearables aren’t exactly budget-friendly for an average consumer, let alone a student. Fortunately, there are things you can do from the comfort of your own home to strengthen desirable brain waves and help with stress, sleep, and productivity.
Meditation or Exercise
Regular meditation has been shown to increase alpha waves – your relaxation brain waves — and reduce beta waves – the brain waves of active thought and learning. That’s why it’s most commonly recommended for reducing stress. Deep breathing and closed-eye visualization – techniques that mindfulness meditation usually employs – also boost alpha waves.
Besides relaxation, alpha waves may also help boost creativity and thereby act as a natural anti-depressant by promoting the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Another way to boost your alphas, surprisingly, is to do high-intensity workouts. Not only do they release endorphins that give that exercise “high”, but they also promote alpha waves as you rest.
Binaural Beats and Music:
There are also techniques that use the concept of brain wave entrainment, whereby your brainwaves begin to match or synchronize with the frequency of an external stimulus, like a pulsing sound or a light. You can use this concept to train your brain waves to a particular frequency during a specific task. For example, you may want beta waves while you’re preparing for a test, or alpha or delta waves to help you sleep.
To get our brain on the right wavelength, you can listen to binaural beats, which are basically two different sound frequencies played in each ear. You can easily find these beats by searching for Delta Binaural Beats or Alpha Binaural Beats on YouTube. If you find binaural beats to be a bit boring or repetitive, there are also services that play music designed to enhance certain brainwaves.
Brainwaves aren’t just responsible for changing your mood. Physicians and researchers examine brain waves to understand how we learn and remember, and also to help diagnose disorders of the brain. Michael Sperling, MD at Thomas Jefferson University studies complex brain wave patterns and when they occur during learning and memory. He recently contributed to research that studied how theta waves are involved in creating “cognitive maps” that are important for remembering places and events. You can read more here.
The next time you’re stressed or relaxed, motivated or depressed, think about what your brain is doing and how you can help it calm down or get energized. Mind over matter!