The Science Behind Alpha State: The Key to Mindfulness

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Understanding the science behind the alpha state helps us to know more about how our brains function and how we can improve our mental and emotional well-being. In this article, I explore some key aspects of the science behind the alpha state of mind.

Alpha Brain Waves science behind it and the key to mindfulness

You might of heard someone use the idiom “brainwave” — “I just had this brainwave”, meaning they 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.

The alpha state involves brain waves that are scientifically defined and determined much later than that date. They are not “hooey phooey” as some might think based on hearing the idiom.

Our brain is an electrical organ. Its neurons create electrical activity. Scientists define brain-waves as oscillating patterns of electrical activity generated by the neurons of the brain.

Health professionals and scientists measure these 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).

Various sources indicate how different brain wave patterns associate 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.

I gained a heightened appreciation of the alpha state of mind as a result of a workshop on the topic some time ago. It helps me to know the science behind it, because some folk discount it as being ‘out there’. I’ve put this together to shed light on it with the view it may help you also.

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 that correspond 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 alpha state of mind

Measuring Brain waves

Scientists use electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) to measure brain waves, including alpha waves, aka alpha rhythms.

Alpha rhythm is not the only type of brainwave studied by scientists. Others include gamma, beta, theta, and delta waves, each with their own unique characteristics and functions.

I wrote about what alpha state of mind felt like and how science tells us we these brain waves which 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 be recognized since the introduction of digital electroencephalography (EEG).

It’s an evolving area of knowledge.

Alpha waves compared to other brainwave patterns

gamma waves (γ-waves)
beta waves (β-waves)
alpha waves (α-waves)
theta waves (θ-waves)
delta waves (δ-waves)
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. 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

Characteristics of Alpha state

Alpha brain waves are electrical patterns of the brain that occur at a frequency of 8 to 12 Hz. These waves are typically present when a person is in a relaxed and calm state, with closed eyes or during light meditation.

Alpha waves are also associated with improved creativity, focus, and memory retention. They are believed to help the brain integrate new information and consolidate memories. Additionally, alpha brain waves have been linked to a reduction in stress and anxiety levels. Overall, alpha brain waves are indicative of a state of relaxation and mental calmness.

Research using EEG recordings of normal awake subjects have shown major alpha rhythms occurring in the occipital region of our brains (see image).

Stress reduction

Research shows alpha state is effective in reducing stress and anxiety levels. Alpha frequencies dominate during meditation, which studies have shown 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).

Why it’s linked to mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness practices have been found to induce alpha brainwave patterns in the brain, which can lead to a sense of calmness and relaxation.

The alpha state seems the bridge between the conscious and subconscious mind. Our brain resonates with clear thought and intuitive thinking. The science shows us that…

  • Alpha waves are a type of brain wave associated with a state of relaxation and calmness.
  • Mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase alpha wave activity in the brain.
  • Alpha waves are thought to play a role in improving attention and reducing stress.
  • Practicing 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 to feel at peace.

What else?

  • 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.
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