Brainwaves and States of Consciousness

Brainwaves represent the electrical activity of the 100 billion neurons within the brain, each one communicating with its neighbors via chemical neuro-transmitters that bridge the synapses between neurons. On average, each neuron has 5,000 synaptic connections. While the electrical activity of a single neuron is too minuscule to measure, the combined activity of all these neighboring neurons is easily detected by modern electroencephalographs (EEGs), though it is worth noting that EEGs struggle to identify activities that lie deep within the brain, far below the scalp to which the machine’s sensors are attached.

This electrical activity demonstrates wave-like patterns that can be separated into distinct frequencies, graded according to the number of waves per unit of time. The first brainwave to be identified in this way was, not surprisingly, the Alpha wave, in 1908. Since then, several other distinct waveforms have been described, and each one corresponds to a different state of consciousness. Normally, the human brain will exhibit a combination of several frequencies at any one time, but one of those frequencies will tend to dominate, depending on whether the person is awake, asleep, or somewhere in between. As we shall see, it is this close connection between brainwave activity and states of mind that enables us to deliberately control our minds by harnessing brainwaves that correspond to the desired state.

The Four Main Frequencies: Beta, Alpha, Theta, and Delta

The nomenclature used to describe brainwaves proceeds more from the order of their discovery rather than from a logical scale of levels of alertness. While Alpha was discovered first, it is not the wave associated with our everyday waking state, and is not, therefore, where our inquiry should begin. That honor belongs instead to the Beta wave, ranging from 13 to 30 Hertz (Hz). This is the prevailing frequency when we are fully alert and interacting with the physical world – working, driving, talking, thinking, etc. While the brain’s pulses are rapid – as indicated by the higher frequency – they are also rather weak, exhibiting a shallow amplitude. Those who suffer from Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD) often exhibit too little Beta in their EEGs, but most of us spend too much time in the Beta state. This results in physiological stress, mental and spiritual imbalance, and cuts us off from the deeper levels of the self that can naturally restore harmony to body and soul.

Brainwave Traces

When we close our eyes and turn our attention inward, the rapid Beta wave gives way to the slower and deeper Alpha wave (7 – 13Hz). Alpha is the first – and last – stage of sleep, in which we are consciously aware but not focused on the external world. Having said that, it is possible to enter an Alpha state with eyes open if you stare at an object for a long time, to the point that you cease really seeing it as your awareness expands to a greater whole. This phenomenon can occur during repetitive tasks that do not call for great attention, and even when watching television. Dr. Jeffrey Thompson, of the Center for Neuroacoustic Research, speaks of a Beta-Alpha Bridge, a delicate balance between the two states in which the mind is poised between external and internal reality and capable of highly efficient actions, handling particular details while also seeing the “bigger picture.”

Alpha Waves

When the slowest Alpha waves give way to Theta waves (3.5 – 7 Hz), we have entered the realm of dreaming sleep. Much of what transpires in the dream state is freighted with emotional significance, and Theta sleep is the time for emotional issues to be resolved through the ultimate creative exercise of dreaming. But, much as we can enter an Alpha state with our eyes open, we can enter a Theta state without being asleep or dreaming. Theta is a region of great interest to meditators and many world religions, for it gives us access to the profound creativity, intuition, and problem-solving abilities of the subconscious mind, as well as spiritual journeys of reconnection with higher powers. As noted in our articles on lucid dreaming, many noted creative talents have used the Theta state to great advantage. The Alpha-Theta Bridge is particularly interesting in this regard, for it maximizes the potential for conscious participation in the creativity of Theta and is associated with out-of-body experiences (OBEs). It also corresponds to the resonant frequency of the earth and ionosphere (7.83 Hz), raising an intriguing spiritual dimension and prospect of oneness with “all that is.”  Theta waves have been shown to greatly enhance learning and the performance of new tasks; surely it is no coincidence that Theta waves are much more pronounced in children, who can often soak up new knowledge and languages like a sponge.

Below 3.5 Hz we enter the Delta region associated with deep, dreamless sleep. This is an essential period for emotional and physical restoration. Indeed, Delta has been attracting a lot of attention for its ability to trigger the release of anti-aging and growth hormones, and encourage DNA repair. Delta waves are commonly observed in infants, for whom growth is the primary mission. Characterized by the slowest, deepest waves of these four main frequencies, Delta is the state in which emotional imbalances are healed and long-term memory is enhanced as time itself ceases to be a meaningful construct. We explore the benefits of Delta in greater detail on our Articles Page.

Into Uncharted Territory: Extraordinary States of Mind

In the last few decades, researchers have discovered mysterious brainwaves outside the four well-known frequencies. The first of these new discoveries was the Gamma wave, cycling above the Beta range at around 40 Hz. This wave seems to emerge when the brain is functioning at a very high level of synthesis, combining multiple senses, perceptions, or memories into a greater, holistic understanding. Straining the limits of existing equipment, researchers went on to identify frequencies up to 100 Hz (HyperGamma) and even as high as 200 Hz (Lambda), which is truly extraordinary. Even more interesting, however, is that the extreme levels of insight, perception, psychic abilities and out-of-body experiences documented at these ultra-high frequencies are almost identical to those observed at another newly-discovered wave all the way at the other end of the scale.

The Epsilon Wave was discovered by Dr. Jeffrey Thompson. Occupying the lowest possible range below Delta, it exhibits an incredibly slow, long waveform. Dr. Thompson speculates that the abilities associated with the two extremes of the frequency scale coincide because the frenetic HyperGamma and Lambda waves are actually riding on an underlying Epsilon wave. It is this combination that enables the most advanced yogis and Tibetan monks to enter states of suspended animation, slowing their metabolic rates to imperceptible levels, and to meditate outside in the snow wearing minimal clothing yet suffering no ill effects.

Brainwave Entrainment Techniques: Towards Total Mind Control

The proposition that we can indirectly control our minds by directly controlling our own brainwaves is not a new one. And the phenomenon that makes it all possible is the frequency-following response – the tendency of the brain to mimic external stimuli. Thus, long before 20th century scientists began recording electrical activity with EEGs, Asian shamans used repetitive drumbeats in their quest to mediate between the visible and spiritual worlds, and the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy observed the effects of sunlight made to flicker by a spinning wheel. In a sense, the first experiments with strobe lights and EEGs merely formalized what Ptolemy had observed some 1700 years earlier.

While entrainment can be accomplished by various means – and the most sophisticated equipment combines several at once – the most practical application of this phenomenon employs sound. But it has to use sound in a particularly creative way, since the human ear has a lower limit of 20 Hz. If we can’t actually hear Alpha, Theta, or Delta waves, how are we going to use sound to entrain them?

Brainwave Entrainment

An important first step in facilitating personal control of brainwaves was the emergence of binaural beats in 1973. An article by Gerald Oster in Scientific American brought together all the previous work on the subject, going back to their original discovery in 1839. When two, slightly different sound frequencies are presented independently to the left and right ear by stereo headphones, the brain “hears” the subsonic difference between them as a distinct sound in its own right. That sound, in turn, evokes a frequency-following response within the brain. Thus, if one ear hears 410Hz and the other ear hears 420Hz, the brain “hears” the 10Hz difference and tends towards a frequency in the Alpha range (7 to 13Hz).

While binaural beats do succeed in controlling brainwaves, they are inherently less effective than some of the newer methods that have been developed. The very fact that the brain must process two distinct tones imposes a certain burden on one’s mental resources. It is preferable to expose the brain to a pure frequency that requires no extraction from carrier frequencies.

Monaural beats are one way of doing this. Monaural beats use the binaural beat theory in a different way. The two carrier frequencies are combined in each channel, producing a sine-wave-like interference pattern outside the ear. The interference pattern exhibits the target frequency and the brain does not need to “figure out” what it is supposed to follow. It is not even necessary to use headphones. The result, documented by Oster in his 1973 article, is a much stronger cortical response.

Isochronic Tones, however, are an even more powerful tool. This technology uses precisely spaced, distinct pulses of sound, “fired off” in a rhythmic isochronic tonesfashion designed to evoke a particular response from the brain. These sounds are very clean and highly effective. And like monaural beats, they do not necessitate the use of headphones. The only downside to isochronic tones is that the very sharpness of the tones makes them difficult to integrate with background music. Binaural beats are commonly incorporated into relaxing soundtracks of instrumental music or nature sounds, and are essentially subliminal. Isochronic tones are much more obvious, but that is the price you pay for the ultimate entrainment technique.

Temporal entrainment is the final tool in the temporal entrainmentbrainwave audio engineer’s bag of tricks. This method encourages the brain to speed up or slow down by modifying familiar sounds, stretching them or compressing them as appropriate. This is a very effective technique, especially when used in conjunction with the other methods. (We review a particularly potent combination in our detailed Brain Evolution System review.) Dr. Jeffrey Thompson’s work also makes good use of temporal entrainment.