How Optimal Brainwaves Can Correlate With Productivity, Athletic Performance and Creativity

By on October 20, 2014

connectome

When looking at ways to improve our cognitive ability or enhance our mental states, there are a vast number of different factors to consider. On the one hand, we have the physical structure of the brain and the interconnected web of neurons – or the ‘connectome’ – that encodes our memories, ideas and personalities. Then we have the cocktail of different neurotransmitters that alter the action of those neurons and control our emotions, attentiveness and more. And then on top of that you have brainwaves, which indicate the rate and amount of communication occurring throughout the brain. This latter factor is the aspect of cognitive performance that perhaps gets the least attention among biohackers, but it may be key to unlocking creativity, focus and peak athletic ability. So let’s take a gander…

What Are Brainwaves?

While you’ve probably heard the term ‘brainwave’, it’s possible that you may not have an accurate picture of precisely what it means. Essentially, brainwaves are indicators of electrical activity in the brain. When a neuron fires to communicate with a nearby neuron, it does so using an electrical signal to cross the space in between which is known as a synapse. The signal itself is called an ‘action potential’ and also carries other information in the form of neurotransmitters affecting our mood and memory and more.

While we can’t precisely decode the information exchanged during individual action potentials, we do know that generally stronger and more frequent signals correlate with increased activity in the brain. Thus, by looking at the frequency and amplitude of the electrical signals generated – the waves – we can roughly calculate how active the brain is at large.

A common misconception is to think that the human brain gives off one single brainwave and that it exists solely in this one state. This isn’t how it works though; at any given time billions of neurons will be firing with varying strengths and frequencies meaning that we actually exhibit all kinds of brainwaves at once. However, it is possible to look at changes across the brain and to see which brainwaves are dominant – which is what will be most indicative of our current mental state.

Brainwaves are measured using EEGs – electroencephalographs that detect electrical activity in the brain via pads attached the scalp. The EEG was invented by Hans Berger and has traditionally been a device reserved for hospitals and research laboratories, though commercial devices like ‘MindWave’ and ‘EPOC’ have recently been gaining popularity and allow you to view your brainwaves through a computer or smartphone.

Types of Brainwave

It’s also important to realise that there are unlimited ‘types’ brainwaves with no two being exactly alike. Nevertheless, by looking at similarities in frequency (the number of times the signal ‘fires’ over a period of time) and amplitude (the ‘volume’ or strength of each firing and the troughs in between), researchers have managed to break our brainwaves down into five categories. Each of these types of brainwave is correlated with certain mental states and should be dominant during particular activities. The key to getting the most from our brains, is to tap into the optimal frequencies for the current task at hand.

Gamma Waves
40Hz-100Hz, low amplitude

Gamma waves are brainwaves of the highest frequencies meaning that our brains are most active. This is the kind of activity that occurs when we are highly alert and focused. They are associated with learning and the assimilation of new information. Gamma waves also ‘bind the senses’ making us more alert to our surroundings and the stimulation of gamma waves using ‘brainwave entraining’ appears to be useful for improving scores on measures of cognitive ability (1). Low amounts of gamma waves are linked to learning difficulties. They are also associated with communication across the brain between different brain areas, ‘moments of insight’, ‘feelings of wellness’ and REM sleep.

Gamma waves only disappear entirely when we are put under anesthesia and it is thought that this may be evidence that they play a critical role in the emergence of consciousness (2). This theory would concur with suggestions that consciousness is an ’emergent’ property of brain activity across multiple brain areas. It appears that meditation can help to increase gamma waves.

Beta Waves
12Hz-40Hz, low amplitude

Beta waves are similarly associated with the brain being highly active and are once again most present when we are focusing, learning or thinking deeply. In high amounts they can lead to stress and anxiety, but they are necessary for learning and motivation. When we use stimulants such as caffeine or nootropics such as modafinil (3), this will increase the presence of beta waves. Think of this state as being ‘on’.

Actually though, beta waves have also been classified as three separate categories known as Beta1 (12-15Hz), Beta2 (15-22Hz) and Beta3 (22-38Hz), or low beta, beta and hi beta. Beta 1 and 2 are actually the most common brainwaves during normal waking life, while higher beta waves are associated with extreme focus, stress and anxiety.

Alpha Waves
8Hz-12Hz, medium amplitude

Alpha waves are the brainwaves we exhibit when we are relaxed and at ease, even moreso than Beta1 and 2. If you are relaxing on a beach with your eyes closed or perhaps drawing a picture, then your brain will probably be mostly in alpha. Marijuana and antidepressants also cause alpha brainwave activity.

While we usually associate Alpha brainwaves with relaxation though, they can also be linked to states of extreme productivity or performance referred to as ‘flow states’. A flow state (which I discussed in more detail here) is a mental state during which you perform optimally and completely without distraction. This is what a golf player feels when they hit a hole in one, or what an athlete feels when they break a world record. It’s also the state you find yourself in when work seems to just ‘flow’ out of you. Essentially you are calm but alert and this means you can react on instinct and without second guessing yourself. Specifically, flow occurs at the lower end of alpha bordering on theta, somewhere between 3Hz-5Hz.

Once again, meditation seems to be the key to achieving alpha brain states at will, while green tea containing L-Theanine may also be a useful aid. Note that an excess of beta brainwaves actually ‘cancels out’ beta waves through a process known as ‘alpha blocking’. More beta waves means fewer alpha waves and vice versa.

Theta Waves
4Hz-8Hz, high amplitude

Theta waves are generally associated with sleep or very deep relaxation. We show theta brain waves when we are in a trance state, hypnosis or deep meditation. Likewise, theta waves are present when we’re on the very verge of sleep – the state known as ‘hypnagogia‘. We also tend to lose some of our awareness of our surroundings when we are primarily in theta.

Interestingly, theta waves are also associated with creativity and lateral thinking. This is because our brains lack ‘laser focus’ in this state, and instead allow us to wander freely between thoughts and ideas, hopefully creating new connections.

This should demonstrate the importance of being able to tap into all brain states. While you might think the ideal would be to be permanently ‘in flow’, this would actually prevent you from learning effectively in gamma or beta, or from being creative in theta. Theta brainwaves are also thought to be restorative and may help us to cement the memories we learned during the day.

Delta Waves
0.5Hz-8Hz, high amplitude

These are the slowest and deepest brainwaves that the brain exhibits and are associated with deep, dreamless sleep. Delta waves completely suspend awareness of the external world. Stimulating delta brainwaves may be therapeutic and able to help people get to sleep as well as combating migraines.

How to Control Your Brainwaves

Seeing as different types of brainwaves have various different benefits, you may be interested in learning to control them and thereby to tap into your most optimal states as and when they are needed.

For this, the number one tool is undoubtedly meditation, which teaches us to take control over our brain activity by actively relaxing our thoughts or reflecting upon them. Using meditation will slow brainwaves at that time to alpha and theta states, while training the ability to control focus as needed to achieve gamma during work or theta during sports.

The MindWave and EPOC headsets give us the means to monitor our own brainwaves during such meditation attempts, thus providing biofeedback for our performance. This is potentially a powerful tool, though it’s important to note that the devices are not as accurate as real EEG machines (and the marketing suggests they are capable of things that they probably aren’t).

Brainwave Entrainment and Binaural Beats

Another option is ‘brainwave entrainment‘ which can be achieved using flashing lights or ‘binaural beats’ (4). These use rhythms in order to gradually focus the brain into certain states, thereby potentially allowing us to achieve gamma or theta at will using a pair of headphones. You can even get ‘digital drugs’ that are sound tracks that claim to be able to replicate the brainwaves experienced on certain drugs.

Do digital drugs and binaural beats work? While the studies looking at brainwave entrainment appear to be promising, it’s unlikely that the homemade tracks attempting to mimic LSD are really going to have any effect. In fact, I actually tried a few before writing this article and I can report there was no notable effect. I’d be interested to hear your experiences though…

You can download sample binaural beats here and here. The first one is meant to be a hangover cure (wouldn’t that be nice?), while the second is meant to stimulate theta brainwaves for enhanced creativity. Neither of them do anything though…

 Conclusions

To me, the best way to manipulate brainwaves is through sheer mental discipline. You can block out external distractions when trying to focus on work if you have the willpower, and doing so will essentially be a form of ‘active meditation’. As nootropics that act as stimulants can increase the frequency of our brainwave patterns, it stands to reason to assume that they are somewhat modulated by neurotransmitters. Thus by controlling emotions, which can be done through cognitive restructuring (using functional thought patterns to control your emotional responses) – you can likely alter your own brainwaves.

If you get good enough at controlling your response through self-awareness and discipline, then you can likely tap into useful mental states and optimal brainwave patterns at will. I will be experimenting with meditation proper soon though, as the potential mental and physical benefits seem pretty impressive.
 

 

 

Subscribe Below to Stay Up to Date!

Mailing List

About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.
  • sisse Dall

    Dear Adam. Thank you for your article! It’s very interesting 🙂 Do you have any academic/scientific sources that you could point me too on the subject. t would be greatly appreciated.
    Kind regards,
    Sisse