Your brain is a bustling hub of electrical activity. This is due to the fact that the cells in your brain, called neurons, use electricity to communicate with each other.
When a group of neurons sends an electrical signal to another group of neurons, we call those brain waves. This is because a computer-generated electroencephalogram (EEG) test that detects and measures the electrical activity in your brain actually creates a picture that looks like a wavelike pattern.
There are five basic types of brain waves that range from very slow to very fast. Alpha waves fall in the middle of that series of waves. Your brain produces these waves when you’re awake but not really concentrating on any one thing.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what exactly alpha brain waves are, what function they serve, and how they compare to other brain waves.
What are alpha brain waves?
When you first wake up in the morning, what’s the first thing you do? Perhaps you turn off your alarm clock and stretch. At this point, your brain might be relaxed.
So, while you’re warming up your muscles, your brain is producing alpha waves. You’re not asking your brain to process a lot of information or solve any big problems. The waves simply indicate that you are in a state of wakeful rest.
You may also be able to increase your brain’s production of alpha waves when you stop focusing or concentrating on a task, and simply try to relax and unwind.
Interestingly, a 2009 study suggests that your brain may produce even more alpha waves in the posterior part of your brain when you meditate. Your brain isn’t totally at rest, but it’s not attempting to tackle anything big that requires concentration.
How are alpha waves different from other brain waves?
Alpha brain waves are only one type of brain wave. There are actually five common types of brain waves.
Brain waves are measured by frequency, which is cycles per second, or hertz (Hz), and they range from very slow to very fast. Alpha waves fit in the middle of the spectrum, between theta waves and beta waves.
Here’s the full spectrum of the five common types of brain waves that you experience every day, from slowest to fastest:
When you’re deep in a state of dreamless sleep, your brain is producing delta waves, which are the slowest type of brainwave. They measure between 0.5 and 4 Hz.
When you’re sleeping more lightly or when you’re extremely relaxed, your brain may produce more theta waves. Theta waves measure between 4 and 8 Hz.
As mentioned, alpha waves fall in the middle of the brain wave spectrum.
Your brain produces these waves when you’re not focusing too hard on anything in particular. Whatever you’re doing, you’re probably feeling relatively calm and relaxed. These waves measure between 8 and 12 Hz.
With these kinds of brain waves, you’re wide awake, alert, and focused. You’re going about your activities of daily living and making decisions. This is when your brain produces higher-speed beta waves, which measure between about 12 and 35 Hz.
Your brain produces the speediest of brain waves, the gamma waves, when you’re actively involved in processing information and learning. You’re concentrating and solving problems, and these brainwaves, which tend to measure upward of 35 Hz, are the proof.
How are brain waves measured?
We can’t see brain waves, but we can measure them. A test called an EEG can identify and measure the electrical activity in your brain.
With an EEG, a technician will place a series of small metal discs called electrodes all over your scalp. The discs convey the electrical activity of your neurons through wires to a machine, which records and prints the patterns out on a screen or paper.
Your doctor may order an EEG to see if there are any unusual patterns in your brain waves or problems that might suggest you have epilepsy or another type of brain disorder.
What are the benefits of alpha waves?
You may be wondering why alpha waves are so important. When your brain is producing these waves, it’s responding to activities like meditation and rest that can reduce your stress levels and help you feel calmer.
If you’re able to produce alpha brain waves, you’re probably able to tap into a state that can help you get some rest and relaxation.
Boosting your alpha waves might also increase your creativity levels. In a 2015 study, researchers found evidence that they could trigger a surge in creativity if they specifically focused on enhancing alpha waves.
The study was small — only 20 participants — but as a randomized trial, it could hold promise for the use of noninvasive brain stimulation to rev up your brain’s production of alpha brain waves.
What happens if alpha waves are interrupted or out of balance?
Your brain doesn’t stop producing one type of brain wave just because you shift into a different state of consciousness or alertness.
It’s more that one type of brain wave will dominate at any given time, based on whether you’re awake or asleep, focused, or floating along. If for some reason your brain isn’t producing very many alpha waves, it means that you’re not in a relaxed, meditative state of mind.
But there are times when your brain waves can become imbalanced.
Research indicates that some people who have depression may have an imbalance of alpha waves, with more of them occurring in an area of the brain called the left frontal cortex.
A small 2019 study trusted Source looked at a brain stimulation technique called transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) and found that it could increase alpha brain waves and reduce depression symptoms in people affected by major depressive disorder (MDD).
Is there a way to produce or increase your alpha brain waves?
You may actually be able to increase your alpha brain waves if you put your mind to it.
A 2014 study trusted Source found that neurofeedback training helped some people with a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback where you respond in real-time to the electrical activity in your brain and try to adjust it.
In this study, participants with GAD were divided into a treatment group and a control group.
The treatment group that underwent neurofeedback training was able to increase the amplitude of their alpha brain waves. These bigger alpha waves increased the participants’ sense of calm and reduced feelings of anxiety.
One caveat: This particular study also included theta waves in the neurofeedback training, which could have also played a role.
However, this study also suggests that it may be possible to train your brain to produce alpha waves that can help you feel more relaxed.
A 2015 study also suggested that meditation and mindfulness training could achieve these kinds of results.
There’s always some type of electrical activity going on in your brain, whether you’re aware of it or not.
At different times of the day, depending on what you’re doing, one type of your brain’s electrical waves will dominate. When your brain’s alpha waves are dominating, you’re likely in a state of wakeful relaxation.
What Are Brain Waves?
Your brain consists of billions of neurons in different regions that use electricity as a way to communicate with one another. When your synapses are firing in synchrony, they create unified combinations of millions of neurons marching in lockstep as a harmonized “neural network” that is linked to a specific state of consciousness, your thoughts, and your mood.
The combination of synchronized electrical activity in the brain is called a “brain wave” because of its cyclic and “wave-like” in nature. Brain waves can be detected using medical equipment, such as electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures the oscillation of electricity levels in different areas on the scalp.
In 1924, German physiologist and psychiatrist Hans Berger recorded the first human EEG. Berger also invented the electroencephalogram and gave the device its name.
At the root of all our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors is communication between neurons. Brain waves are produced by synchronized electrical pulses from masses of neurons communicating with each other.
Brain waves are divided into five different bandwidths that are believed to create a spectrum of human consciousness. Our brain waves change throughout the day and are part of a feedback loop that is influenced by what we’re doing, thinking, and feeling emotionally at any given time—or while we sleep.
- Delta waves (.5 to 3 Hz) are the slowest brain waves and occur primarily during our deepest state of dreamless sleep.
- Theta waves (3 to 8 Hz) occur during sleep but have also been observed in the deepest states of Zen meditation.
- Alpha waves (8 to 12 Hz) are present when your brain is in an idling default-state typically created when you’re daydreaming or consciously practicing mindfulness or meditation. Alpha waves can also be created by doing aerobic exercise.
- Beta waves (12-30 Hz) typically dominate our normal waking states of consciousness and occur when attention is directed towards cognitive and other tasks. Beta is a ‘fast’ wave activity that is present when we are alert, attentive, focused, and engaged in problem-solving or decision making. Depression and anxiety have also been linked to beta waves because they can lead to “rut-like” thinking patterns.
- Gamma waves (25 to 100 Hz) typically hover around 40 Hz and are the fastest of the brain wave bandwidths. Gamma waves relate to the simultaneous processing of information from different brain areas and have been associated with higher states of conscious perception.
Alpha Waves, Biofeedback, Meditation, and Mindfulness
Alpha waves took center stage in the early 1960s and 1970s with the creation of biofeedback, a technique used to consciously alter brain waves using direct feedback provided by an EEG type of device. Biofeedback is a type of neurofeedback typically used to teach practitioners how to create alpha brain waves.
When alpha oscillations are prominent, your sensory inputs tend to be minimized and your mind is generally clear of unwanted thoughts. When your brain shifts gears to focus on a specific thought—in either a positive or negative way—alpha oscillations tend to disappear and higher frequency oscillations begin running the show.
Alpha wave biofeedback has been shown to be a useful tool for treating anxiety and depression. Because alpha waves are linked with relaxed mental states, an increase in alpha wave activity is the goal of most biofeedback training. EEG can be used to provide moment-to-moment feedback when alpha waves increase or decrease.
Mindfulness training and meditation tend to produce noticeably more alpha waves without the use of technological machinery. Neuroscientists at Brown University are doing research on how the brain achieves “optimal inattention” by changing the synchronization of brain waves between different brain regions. Their 2015 study, “Attention Drives Synchronization of Alpha and Beta Rhythms between Right Inferior Frontal and Primary Sensory Neocortex,” was published in the Journal of Neuroscience. The Brown researchers hope that teaching people how to harness the “power to ignore” by creating an alpha brain state through mindfulness will enable anyone who suffers from chronic pain to reduce perceptions of pain and for people who have depression or anxiety to minimize their symptoms. (See “5 Neuroscience Based Ways to Clear Your Mind.”)
Relaxation techniques like mindfulness and meditation may help increase your alpha waves. This, in turn, may help you feel calmer, less anxious, and, according to some studies, may even boost your creativity levels.