The Alpha State: The Secret Key to Mindfulness and Self-Care

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Understanding the alpha state helps us to know more about ourselves, how our brains function and how we can gain a positive mindset to achieve our goals.

Alpha Brain Waves science behind it and the key to mindfulness

I did a workshop on the alpha state of mind and gained a heightened appreciation of how it can help with achieving goals some time ago. It’s a brainwave state that brings many benefits. There’s science behind it – It’s not an “out there” phenomenon.

I’ve put this together to help shed light on the topic.

Key Takeaway
Our brain is an electrical organ with its neurons generating electrical activity.
Scientists define brain waves as oscillating patterns of electrical activity.
Alpha brain waves exist and oscillate at a frequency of ~8 to 12 Hz.
Alpha waves are a natural and beneficial part of the brain’s functioning.
By learning how to enhance and regulate them, you can tap into the many positive effects they have on your mind and body.

Brainwave idiom

You might have used this brain wave idiom — “I just had this brainwave!”, meaning you just had a sudden smart idea.

The earliest trace of this idiom is from 1869, meaning: “apparent telepathic vibration transferring a thought from one person to another without any other medium”, according to the online etymology dictionary.

Having a sudden thought come from nowhere is not that far from the truth – when you’re in alpha state that is.

It was much later that science defined and determined brain waves exist, and that the alpha frequency rhythms correspond to a relaxed state of mind.

Brain waves are not the “hooey phooey” some might think.

Alpha waves effect on brain

Alpha waves are a type of brainwave that have a calming effect on the brain. When they are present, you may feel more relaxed and focused, similar to the feeling you get when you take a deep breath and let it out slowly. 

When we are in the alpha state, we are more open to positive suggestions and can reprogram our mind to focus on positive thoughts and emotions. This can help us develop a positive mindset and reduce negative thoughts and feelings like anxiety, stress, and depression.

Related: I wrote an article about what it feels like to be in alpha state.

Mindfulness and the alpha state

Mindfulness is the practice of being present and fully engaged in the current moment. It’s about paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations without judgment or distraction. You can achieve mindfulness through meditation, deep breathing, or simply being aware of your surroundings.

When you practice mindfulness, you’re essentially training your brain to enter the alpha state more easily and stay there longer.

This can have many benefits, like reduced stress and anxiety, improved focus and memory, and even better sleep.

In a nutshell, mindfulness is all about being present and in the moment, while the alpha state of mind is a relaxed, creative state that you can achieve through mindfulness practices.

How scientists test for brain waves

Health professionals and scientists measure brain waves using an electroencephalogram (EEG) and classify results according to frequencies, which range from very slow delta waves (less than 4 Hz) to very fast gamma waves (more than 30 Hz).

professional or scientist examining the brain of a person using an EEG, brainwave frequencies are projected onto screen

A Scientific American article explains how different brain wave patterns are associated with different states of consciousness, such as deep sleep, meditation, and focused attention.

The consciousness state associated with mindfulness mostly involves the alpha rhythms, which are linked to relaxed and focused attention.

It’s often talked about as a state of consciousness. You can achieve this alpha state of consciousness through meditation, music, and other techniques.

I know from my personal experience of meditation and mindfulness that I get this clarity of mind and a relaxed and focused way of being as a result.

the science behind it

The first scientist to discover brainwaves was German psychiatrist Hans Berger. In 1924, he developed the electroencephalogram (EEG), a method of recording electrical activity in the brain through electrodes placed on the scalp.

Through his research, Berger discovered that the brain produces different types of electrical waves corresponding to different states of consciousness. His work laid the foundation for the study of neuroscience and our understanding of brain function.

Some key aspects of the science behind alpha state:

  • Alpha frequencies vs other patterns
  • Characteristics of alpha brain waves
  • What’s associated with the alpha state of mind

Measuring Brain waves

Scientists today not only use electroencephalography (EEG) but also magnetoencephalography (MEG) to measure brain rhythms.

Research using EEG recordings of normal awake subjects show the major alpha rhythms occurring in the occipital region of our brains (at the back in the image).

Other rhythms studied include gamma, beta, theta, and delta waves, each with its own unique characteristics and functions.

These brain waves oscillate at different frequencies — Delta (0.5–3 Hz), theta (3.5–7 Hz), alpha (8-–12 or 13 Hz), beta (13–30 Hz), and gamma (30–100 Hz) — the five widely recognized patterns (Abhang et al, 2016).

Gamma waves have only been recognized since the introduction of digital electroencephalography (EEG).

It’s an evolving area of knowledge.

Alpha waves compared to other brainwave patterns

The following charts show the differences between the different brainwaves. Alpha waves are relatively slow compared to most others but are relatively fast when it comes to alpha vs delta waves (bottom graph).

chart of gamma waves oscillation
EEG gamma rhythm (γ-waves)
beta brainwave frequency chart
EEG beta rhythm (β-waves)
alpha waves oscillation
EEG alpha rhythm (α-waves)
theta brainwave frequency chart
EEG theta rhythm (θ-waves)
delta brainwave frequency chart
EEG delta rhythm (δ-waves)
Brainwave frequent charts — x = time in seconds
Credit: Hugo Gamboa CC BY-SA 3.0

The above graphs show how alpha oscillations are slower than beta and gamma, but faster than theta and delta.

Alpha state occurs during relaxed wakefulness and when you first enter your sleep. Compare this to beta when a person is task orientated; theta during sleep; and delta during deep sleep.

Alpha waves … disappear during sleep and vanish when there is concentration on a specific task.

Jahangir Moini and Pirouz Piran (2020), Front Matter

Benefits of Alpha state

Overall, alpha brain waves are indicative of a state of relaxation and calm. The three main benefits helping you achieve your goals…

Stress reduction

Research shows the alpha state is effective in reducing stress and anxiety levels. Alpha frequencies dominate during meditation, which studies have shown to reduce stress hormones (Banquet, 1973; Jevning, Wilson, & Davidson, 1978).

Improved creativity

Alpha state has been linked to improved creativity and problem-solving abilities (Fink & Neubauer, 2006).

Enhanced learning and memory

Findings reveal the Alpha state is associated with enhanced learning and memory retention (Klimesch, 1999; Gevins, Smith, McEvoy, & Yu, 1997).

How to increase alpha waves

Science shows us that…

  • Mindfulness meditation practices increase alpha brainwave patterns in the brain.
  • Practising mindfulness regularly may lead to long-term changes in alpha wave activity and overall brain function.
  • Alpha wave biofeedback training may be a useful tool for improving mindfulness skills and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression when feeling overwhelmed.
  • Brainwave entrainment, a process that involves using external stimuli such as sound or light to induce specific brainwave patterns, has gained popularity as a tool for achieving alpha state and its associated benefits.