RYAN ALTMAN

🏄‍♂️ Surfing Your Brain: An Illuminating Dive Into Brainwaves and Meditation

I hope your new year is off to an awesome start.

Mine’s going well.

A bit chaotic with a lot of the big changes I mentioned in my last email on the horizon.

Despite all that, I’m starting to work on a goal I set out for myself last year (better late than never!)

Last Christmas my family got me a Muse headband.

It’s a meditation gadget that’s supposed to help you meditate better, feel calmer, reduce stress, yada yada–the typical well-being stuff.

I didn’t get it for any of those reasons, though.

I got it so I could measure my brainwaves.

The Muse includes a scientific-grade EEG.

An EEG (electroencephalogram) is a device that measures brainwaves and brain activity.

My goal was to study my brainwaves during meditation and spiritual practice to see what effects they have on my brain.

I’ve been doing that for about a week now.

I’ve also been learning a lot about brainwaves and how they function.

It’s been super cool to see which practices induce different kinds of brainwaves.

I’m definitely looking forward to exploring more.

Like other biometric data, understanding our brainwaves can give us deeper insight into our state of consciousness, mood, mental health, and level of performance.

Smart watches and other wearables that measure all sorts of diagnostics are already extremely popular, and I foresee brainwaves coming into that mix more in the future.

That’s not to mention the possibilities opening up for brain-computer interfaces that use brain activity to control our external environment.

Imagine thinking about unlocking your car door, and it unlocks?

Pretty cool, right?

I’m totally against neural implants by the way–no thanks.

I don’t need anyone implanting things into my brain.

Headbands all the way.

Maybe we’ll all be wearing EEG headbands soon?

I should pitch this to Apple!

Measuring my brave waves during a meditation session.

The lowdown on brainwaves

The brain produces different electric frequencies depending on its state.

Many brainwave frequencies arise from different parts of the brain at the same time.

However, depending on the activity, some brainwaves become more dominant than others.

An EEG measures the intensity of different brainwaves and can show which ones are most active at a given time.

This gives us important neurofeedback on which activities are helpful for producing certain brain states.

As we’ll explore, certain states like flow are achieved when several brainwave frequencies are highly active at once, while others show a single brainwave most dominant.

There are 5 main types of brainwaves that are categorized by their frequency and general function.

From slowest to fastest they are:

  • Delta (0-4hz) – Unconsciousness
  • Theta (4-8hz) – Open Awareness
  • Alpha (8-12hz) – Relaxed Attention
  • Beta (12-30hz) – Focused Attention
  • Gamma (30-100+hz) – Synchronization

I’ll touch briefly on each one to help you get a better understanding of them.

I’ll also explain which brainwaves are active in desirable states like when we’re in flow and meditation, and suggest some practices to help you stimulate them in your own brain.

Ready? Let’s surf some brainwaves! 🏄‍♂️

Delta (0-4hz) – Unconsciousness

Delta waves are the slowest brainwave and occur mostly when we’re asleep or have very little conscious awareness.

They’re also more prevalent in babies and young children.

The presence of too much delta during daily life can show that we didn’t get sufficient sleep the night before.

Delta waves occur in meditation, however their presence is more often associated with the dullness of sleep, rather than the alert, yet relaxed states of the brain indicative of meditation.

So far, I’ve found there’s a significantly higher amount of delta waves in my meditation practices when I’m feeling tired.

Practices: Laying down, resting in any position, falling asleep, reducing stimulants

Theta (4-8hz) – Open Awareness

Theta waves are the next slowest brain wave, and indicate open awareness without an object of focus.

They show an open state of attention that balances inner and outer experiences giving space for emotions, intuition, imagination and creativity to arise.

Theta waves are also associated with light sleep, relaxation, and daydreaming–anything where we have an introspective attitude.

Too little theta can indicate states of stress, and anxiousness.

During meditation, theta waves are a positive indication that you are in an open, expansive state of awareness.

When theta is really active we may lose the sense of being an ‘individual’ and open up into a spacious field of consciousness.

The flow state is shown by high activation of both theta and alpha waves, which we’ll explore next.

Practices: Self-inquiry (awareness of awareness), just being, softening the gaze, introspection, interoception (awareness of internal states like emotions)

Alpha (8-12hz) – Relaxed Attention

Alpha waves show an alert, yet relaxed state of awareness in the brain.

It’s when we’re focusing on something without thinking about it.

Alpha is the most common brain wave I’ve seen throughout my meditation practice thus far.

Most alpha waves originate from the posterior, or back region of the brain, where information like visual stimuli is processed.

Being the middle frequency of the five, alpha waves act as a bridge between the conscious and subconscious mind.

Alpha waves can be present in some intense aerobic activities like running, swimming and sports too.

They’re also active when we’re in states of mindfulness and light states of meditation.

Low alpha waves can indicate ADD, OCD, insomnia or other imbalances in attention.

When theta-alpha waves are dominant, this indicates that we’re in a state of flow where our attention is open, relaxed and free flowing.

Practices: mindfulness, just being, visualizations, intense aerobic activities, mantra, focusing on the breath

Beta (12-30hz) – Focused Attention

Beta waves are the most prominent identifier for the waking state.

They are caused by focused cognitive processes like logical thinking, reasoning, problem-solving and planning.

The frontal area of the brain responsible for executive functions is the source of much beta wave activity.

Additionally, people who suffer from high levels of stress and anxiety show a correlated higher level of beta activity.

Too much beta activity can leave us feeling ‘tired, but wired’.

Stimulants like caffeine also induce higher levels of beta waves in the brain.

Although lower beta activity is seen in most meditation practices, there’s some practices where there’s advanced activity too.

For example, when high beta activity is combined with high frequency gamma waves, the beta-gamma combination can indicate highly energized states of consciousness in advanced meditators.

Practices: one-pointed concentration, logical reasoning, thinking

Gamma (30-100+hz) – Synchronization

Gamma waves have the fastest frequency of all types of brain activity.

Gamma waves bind together different parts of the brain in order to perform complex tasks like memory recall and consolidation, learning abstract concepts, and deep problem-solving.

Rather than strict logical thinking, gamma waves show directed thought that is intuitive, flowing, creative and interconnected.

Basically, gamma waves show wisdom and experience around a task or situation that allows us to navigate it with ease.

In advanced, ‘Olympic level’ meditators, gamma activity can increase to levels far beyond those recorded in average human beings.

High energy, elevated gamma states are also usually accompanied by high beta or alpha activity, showing signs of synchronization across the brain along with strong attention.

These states in the brain are related to experiences of samadhi (meditative absorption), and peak experiences.

Practices: High energy brain states from Kriya yoga or other energy practices, long and extended practice of meditation

I hope you found this brief discussion on brainwaves interesting.

I’m excited to learn more, and share my research with you all.

I’ll be showing graphs and data that I collect at some point in the future, and with this background information you’ll be able to interpret them yourself.

As a final note, I want to be clear that I don’t think brainwaves can show enlightenment or awakening in an objective way, e.g. “This guy’s brain is in ridiculously high states of beta-gamma activity! He must be be the next Buddha!”

No.

I definitely don’t see it helping in that way.

I believe research can help us understand the effects of meditation and spiritual practices on the brain to make them better, not define the subjective quality of enlightenment, or what it is in some objective terms.

For that, we’ll have to hit the waves and experience it for ourselves.

Surfs up!

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