Alpha brain waves are considered slower brain wave activity with oscillations that range from 8 Hz to 12 Hz (cycles per second). The alpha wave is typically produced by the right hemisphere of the brain, but often is synchronized across both right and left hemispheres on an E.E.G. Specifically, alpha waves are observed as being generated mostly from the occipital lobe during drowsiness and sleep.
Individuals that relax with closed-eyes tend to exhibit more alpha wave activity. In fact, the alpha range typically becomes dominant when a person closes their eyes and focuses on relaxing. When you open your eyes, alpha wave activity becomes reduced. Many researchers believe that alpha activity is linked to drowsiness, relaxation, and boosted mood. Think of the alpha brain wave as playing an important role in helping people calm down. It bridges the gap between our waking state and our sleeping state.
Types of Alpha Brain Waves
The alpha range contains a few different types of specific alpha waves. All types of alpha waves play an important role in our sleep-wake cycle.
- Occipital Lobe: This is the most widely researched type of alpha activity. Scientists have found that alpha activity increases significantly during states of relaxation and while our eyes are closed during periods of rest. In this state we are not asleep, but our brain’s are relaxed and thoughts are slowed. The activity is centered in the occipital lobe and most agree that it is produced by this region of the brain.
- REM Sleep: During our rapid-eye movement sleep, there is an appearance of alpha waves. This activity tends to be produced by the frontal-central region of the brain. Researchers currently aren’t sure of the purpose of alpha production during REM sleep, but some hypothesize that they are just normal and may indicate slightly increased arousal. Some think that alpha activity may have an inverse relationship to REM sleep pressure.
- Slow-Wave: The other type of alpha waves observed are during slow brain wave sleep. This is sometimes referred to as the alpha-delta state. The activity can be observed across the anterior-posterior region of the brain. Some believe that this may indicate a slightly wakeful period during deep sleep.
Alpha Brain Waves: What do they do?
Most people associate alpha brain waves with calmness and relaxing with our eyes closed. Others believe that they are a natural cure for anxiety and stress. Some researchers even think that alpha activity at 10 Hz may be linked to states of relaxed “peak performance.” In any regard, below are some effects of dominant alpha activity.
- Balanced mood: Individuals that are depressed as a result of being “over-stressed” could feel an antidepressant effect when their alpha activity increases. Alpha activity – specifically in the right hemisphere of the brain has been shown to boost mood. Some people also experience a more “balanced” mood when they increase their alpha waves.
- Calmness: Most people associate the alpha range with feelings of calmness. People that are stressed have a diminished ability to produce these waves. When we are at our calmest with our eyes closed and are idly relaxing, this is when we experience alpha as a dominant brain wave state.
- Creativity: It has been hypothesized that alpha activity is linked to increases in creativity. Since it is produced predominantly by the right hemisphere, it is thought that it may enhance artistic ability as well as creative problem solving skills. Sometimes when we relax, we experience “aha” moments – this is a result of the alpha wave. It is creative, relaxed, problem solving which gives us a different perspective.
- Daydreaming: If you close your eyes or daydream a lot, this may be evidence of alpha increases. Most adults tend to be very focused and task-oriented. Alpha is more common in younger children that tend to daydream a lot and have difficulties focusing. In some cases, it is even linked to ADHD if the increased alpha is accompanied by other slow wave activity (e.g. theta).
- Decreased focus: During the alpha brain wave state, many individuals have poorer focus and concentration. It has been shown that the greater the amount of alpha activity, the more likely someone is to make a mistake. Studies have shown that when someone makes a mistake, alpha activity increases an average of 25%. In other words, the person is on “auto pilot” or too “idle” to perform a certain task. When alpha decreases, attention and focus increase. Therefore, alpha is not ideal for critical thinking and/or detail-oriented, technical work.
- Flow state of mind: It has been thought that the 10 Hz alpha wave is key in a “flow” state of consciousness. A state of flow is characterized by being calm and focused at the same time. In other words, the saying “mind like water” holds true. It is able to go with the flow without getting overly aroused or being “idle.” This is considered a happy medium between the fast paced beta waves and the drowsy theta waves.
- Immune system: Some have hypothesized that our immune system benefits from increasing alpha waves. This in part has to do with the fact that relaxation can help our bodies recover from the toxic effect of stress. It is known that stress can cause all sorts of health problems, so it is no wonder that relaxing (in the alpha range) helps boost the immune system.
- Peak performance: Despite the fact that the 40 Hz gamma wave has been linked to peak performance, so has the 10 Hz alpha wave. It is hypothesized that a synchronized 10 Hz rhythm across both hemispheres may play a role in helping people achieve a relaxed state of peak performance. There have been studies conducted involving basketball players and golfers and when they missed a shot (basketball) and/or hit a bad shot (golf), they experienced spikes of beta activity. When they sank a free throw or hit a good shot, they maintained alpha activity.
- Positive thinking: This isn’t the high-energy, excitement-type, positive thinking of the beta range. However, when people experience alpha increases it is linked to having a more optimistic outlook on life. People tend to be calm and think fairly positive with dominant alpha. Think of this as the opposite of rapid-negative stressful or angry thoughts.
- Problem solving: For thinking outside the box, some would argue that the alpha range is what helps. Individuals sometimes get so stressed out that all they do is keep thinking and ruminating about possible solutions, but can never solve their problem. Sometimes it helps to simply slow the mind down and then the solution appears easily and naturally in the alpha state.
- Relaxation: Anytime you feel deeply relaxed, you are experiencing alpha brain waves. Think of times right before you go to bed and transition into sleep. Your eyes are closed, you are relaxing and you experience a sense of calmness. If you like to lay out in the sun and tan and experience a sense of relaxation while lying with your eyes closed, this also provides an alpha boost.
- Serotonin: When we relax, our body is able to naturally produce more serotonin. It is hypothesized that alpha may release more serotonin and thus increase our ability to relax, stay calm, and ward off stress.
- Slower visual acuity: Since alpha activity decreases when people are fully awake with eyes open, it is linked with slower visual acuity. In other words, visual processing speed while you are awake is negatively affected by increases in alpha.
- Super learning: Some have argued that increases in alpha contribute to a state of “super learning.” Meaning more of our brain is able to absorb information and thus we learn better. I tend to disagree with this hypothesis based on the fact that alpha activity tends to decrease focus. There may be some degree of truth to this for certain types of learning if accompanied by appropriate beta.
- Visualization: If you like to close your eyes and visualize, this is the brain wave that you will experience. Anytime you close your eyes, are relaxed, and visualizing internally (e.g. mind’s eye), you will come to learn what the alpha range feels like.
Note: Alcohol and drug abuse can significantly reduce alpha frequency and amplitude. Thus decreasing the benefits to be had from this particular range. In part this may be why individuals that abuse drugs and alcohol have a difficult time relaxing once the “high” wears off.
Alpha Brain Waves Research
Discovery: German neurologist Hans Berger was the first individual to discover alpha waves. He did this by measuring electrical activity in the brain’s of hospital patients with skull damage. He documented these waves along with beta activity. He found that when alpha waves decrease and beta activity becomes dominant, we are fully awake. Since he discovered this wave, they have been referred to as “Berger’s Wave.”
Biofeedback: This is a technique that involves helping people naturally train their brains to produce certain brain waves. The idea behind it is that you receive “feedback” when your brain increases activity of a certain wave. The goal is to eventually learn how to consciously produce this type of brain wave activity without feedback after multiple training sessions.
Seizure resistance: Some hypothesize that increasing the amplitude and dominance of alpha brain waves can help individuals that are seizure-prone. Research in cats indicates that if alpha activity is trained, they have a greater resistance to seizures. Whether this holds true for humans is somewhat controversial.
Stress relief: Research has shown that individuals that are stressed out tend to produce an overabundance of beta waves. Most of these individuals may experience what is called “alpha blocking” or blocked alpha activity. Meaning the alpha activity is so low, that it doesn’t allow the individual to lower their level of arousal. In order to decrease stress, it has been found that training alpha via biofeedback has had some positive results.