Part of my meditation teacher training course involves learning about the different brainwaves and understanding what specifically is going on in our brains when we meditate and enter different levels of consciousness.
The purpose of the post is part revision for me and hopefully of interest to some of you who would like to know more about what’s really going on in our brains during meditation and different states of consciousness.
German neurologist, Hans Berger, was the inventor of Electroencephalography (EEG) which allowed him to record brainwaves. He’s also famous for discovering the alpha wave rhythm (more on this further down the article)
According to David Millet, Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN), Berger’s discovery has been described as “one of the most surprising, remarkable, and momentous developments in the history of clinical neurology.”
At the root of all our thoughts, emotions and behaviours is the communication between neurons within our brains. Brainwaves are produced by synchronised electrical pulses from masses of neurons communicating with each other. — Brainworks
The combination of millions of neurons sending signals at once produces an enormous amount of electrical activity in the brain, which can be detected using an EEG, measuring electricity levels over areas of the scalp. The combination of electrical activity of the brain is commonly called a brainwave pattern, because of its cyclic, “wave-like” nature. — Transparent corporation
According to my Inside Meditation theory notes, mainstream neuroscience distinguishes between five basic categories of brainwave patterns: beta, alpha, theta, delta and gamma.
Our brainwaves can therefore reveal what our different states of mind are through the frequencies we choose to live by. The different brainwave frequencies are measured in Hertz (Hz) cycles per second by an EEG machine.
You’re most likely to be in the beta brainwave state whilst at work (if you’re focusing properly!). The beta state is most associated with your normal waking state, direct linear thinking, mental activity and concentration. In the beta state you can also analyse and assimilate new information rapidly, process complex ideas, and peak in physical and mental performance. However, if you remain in the beta state for too long, you may start to feel stressed and anxious. Prolonged time in this state may lead to burnout.
“The hippocampus of a licensed London taxi driver is highly active when navigating around the city, and its volume increases the more spatial knowledge and experience they acquire.” — The Royal Society
You might go into the alpha state whilst daydreaming, going on a relaxing walk in nature or whilst in light meditation. Here, your conscious mind starts to relax whilst remaining alert, your body is calm, and you’re in the present moment. The alpha state is the power of now! It is also associated with a typical ‘Zen’ meditation in which the attention of the practitioner is in a state of ‘open focus’.
During deep meditation, your brain will go into the theta brainwave state where there is the potential to experience the sensation of transcending time and space. Lucid dreaming, shamanic ‘journeying’, psychic experiences, astral projection and other spiritual insights are all associated with the theta state.
You’re in the delta state during dreamless sleep or very deep meditation. According to Brain Works, delta brainwaves suspend external awareness and are the source of empathy. In this state the body has chance to heal and regenerate itself which is why deep restorative sleep is so important.
The gamma state is associated with higher levels of awareness, and according to Brain Works, it was originally dismissed as as ‘spare brain noise’ until it was discovered that in the gamma state it may be possible to change brain tissue and perceive more than we ordinarily would in the waking state. The presence of gamma brainwave patterns is also associated with expanded consciousness.
According to my Inside Meditation notes and the centre for Neuroacoustic Research, there are also three additional brainwaves patterns which are not generally recognised by mainstream neuroscience; these are, hyper-gamma, lambda and epsilon brainwaves.
Although hyper-gamma, epsilon and lambda brainwaves are all associated with different brain activity, they have all been found to display the same states of consciousness. In all honesty, I’m not entirely sure what this means. How can we measure consciousness if no one really knows specifically what it is?
Hyper-gamma brainwaves are associated with extraordinary states of consciousness and extremely high states of meditation, deep levels of insight, and high degrees of self awareness.
There are similarities between hyper-gamma and lambda brainwaves, so the hyper-gamma description may also be relevant here too. However, we still don’t know too much about either of these states. It is thought that Tibetan monks who walk barely clothed through the snow go into the lambda brainwave state though. It’s also thought, that when you’re close to dying, you may be in the lambda brainwave state.
During the epsilon or sub-delta brainwave state, no discernable heartbeat or pulse can be detected. The state is associated with extraordinary states of consciousness and spiritual insights. As with the lambda and hyper-gamma states, not much is known about the epsilon state as it’s so rare.
Read more about these lesser known brainwaves at the Center for Neuroacoustic Research webpage.
According to the site Brain and Health, we shouldn’t talk as if we’re just producing one type of brainwave, e.g, beta or alpha… They’re only categorised for convenience and aren’t really separate.
“Our overall brain activity is a mix of all the frequencies at the same time, some in greater quantities and strength than others. The meaning of all this? Balance is the key. We don’t want to regularly produce too much or too little of any brainwave frequency.”
I suppose it gets complicated when it comes to the three brainwaves we know less about. How do we know if we’ve ever been in an epsilon or hyper-gamma state?
Find out more about how to achieve more balance here: The basics of brainwaves