Theta brain waves are considered brain waves that oscillate between the frequencies of 4 Hz to 8 Hz (cycles per second). This brain wave rhythm may be dominant among children, individuals with ADHD, or overpowering when individuals are unable to focus on a particular task. Theta waves have been linked to experiencing emotions, daydreaming, intuition, relaxation, the subconscious mind, and REM sleep (accompanied by bursts of gamma waves).
Since experiencing theta brain waves is linked to lower levels of arousal, it is hypothesized that theta wave dominance, particularly in the left hemisphere may contribute to feelings of depression. It is important to note that this article is referring to cortical theta rhythms – that can be observed anywhere in the brain. There are specific studies regarding the theta rhythm in the hippocampal region – that is something different.
In comparison, children tend to have significantly more theta activity than adults. Individuals that go into deep meditative states may also experience an increase in theta brain waves. Additionally, theta waves in certain regions of the brain are linked to learning disorders. Healthy theta activity may enhance our ability to process emotions, be creative, and tap our intuition.
Theta Brain Waves: What do they do?
Most researchers associate theta brain waves with the inability to consciously focus. They are involved in subconscious processing, experiencing emotions, and are tied to supernatural, paranormal, and other spiritual experiences. They are associated with deep states of relaxation and sleep.
The majority of the adult population experiences very little theta activity while awake. Most people only experience theta states when they are completely unconscious (e.g. during sleep) and generally aren’t able to remember the experience (due to lack of “conscious” beta activity). Below are some conditions and experiences that are thought to be directly tied with theta increases.
- ADHD: In many cases of ADHD, it is found that theta brain waves prevent people from focusing. People that have a dominant theta rhythm tend to have difficulties concentrating on work and school projects because their brain is unable to speed up and produce quicker beta waves. Stimulant medications tend to speed up brain waves – particularly in the frontal lobes of the brain.
- Creativity: Theta waves are tied to enhanced levels of creativity. This is in part due to the fact that “conscious” thinking is turned off and our right hemisphere becomes more active with slower wave activity. The right hemisphere of the brain is linked to emotion, images, and creativity such as with art and music. Think of musicians and inventors that daydream and have imagery come to them – this is the theta state.
- Depression: If you are depressed, the theta wave could be a major problem. In the brains of depressed individuals, it has been found that their brains may be producing an overabundance of theta activity. If theta activity is dominant and a person is overly emotional and/or depressed, reducing theta is thought to help alleviate symptoms.
- Emotions: Remember the profound emotions that you experienced as a child? This is the theta state. Children are predominantly operating in a theta brain wave state. If you have trapped or suppressed emotions, it is likely that you have experienced a high degree of stressed that could be preventing your natural, raw emotions from shining through. The theta range is tied to experiencing very strong emotions.
- Healing: There is some evidence that the theta range could help heal both the body and the mind from extreme stress and/or other ailments. Some hypothesize that the theta rhythm can reset the brain’s sodium / potassium ratio back to natural levels. The theory behind this is that if you are stuck in a state of high stress, these ratios become thrown out of homeostatic balance. Since the theta wave is capable of slowing down both the body and the mind (e.g. lowering arousal), it is thought to help with both healing and giving us a sense of restoration.
- Hyperfocus: Have you ever heard that someone is able to hyperfocus? This is a phenomenon observed primarily among individuals with ADHD and high amounts of theta. It is a highly intense form of concentration or visualization that focuses on a particular subject, topic, or task. It can cause side-tracked thinking, but it basically allows an individual to put all of their focus on a specific task. A person’s brain may come up with unique solutions, brainstorming, and/or perspectives during this particular state.
- Immune system: Some believe that increasing slow wave activity, particularly in the theta range could help boost our immune system. It has been noted that alpha waves can help improve our immune functioning, but theta waves may also play a restorative-type role. If stress is the culprit for a person getting sick a lot, increasing alpha-theta activity simultaneously could help improve someone’s immune system functioning.
- Impulsivity: Have you ever taken an impulsive action? Individuals with ADHD tend to be prone to a high degree of impulsivity. This is because when the brain is dominated by theta activity, the person is not consciously thinking. Therefore instead of thinking before a situation (e.g. weighing “pros” and “cons”) and or coming up with a logical solution, the person acts strictly out of impulse or intuition for immediate gratification. This is in part why children also act out of impulse much of the time – it’s because they lack adequate beta activity to think logically.
- Intuition: Individuals that have a deep sense of intuition are able to get an understanding of something without any conscious thought. In other words people get a “gut feeling” or certain vibe about a situation and are able to follow their raw instinct. Usually if someone has a good connection with their intuition, they follow it and find that it leads them in the correct direction. Intuition is often based on strictly subconscious queues which involve little or no conscious thought.
- Learning: Certain individuals believe that theta could be involved in a phenomenon called “super learning.” The thought behind it is that a person is more subconsciously receptive and thus it improves their overall ability to learn. It is common thought that the theta rhythm is what makes it easier for children to learn a new language than adults – because they are absorbing information through the right, subconscious hemisphere of the brain. I disagree with this thinking as the beta range seems most beneficial for learning new material.
- Long-term or childhood memories: Anytime you randomly experience a burst of an old memory from childhood, the theta rhythm may be the culprit. The beta range is what brings the memory to our conscious attention and is involved in processing, but the theta range is what may randomly generate a memory from the past.
- Meditation: Individuals that go into deep states of meditation may lower their arousal and relax brain activity to the theta range. This may be accompanied by feelings of deep relaxation, emotion, and/or reverie. Typically individuals will be unable to remember their experience unless the experience bridges the gap from alpha to beta (our conscious awareness).
- Paranormal: There is some indication that suggests theta may be linked to paranormal experiences. When individuals are in a dream-like state, they may have “psychic” experiences, OOBE’s (out of body experiences), astral projections, or experience what is referred to as “lucid dreaming.” In the theta range, people experience dream-like functioning and it may contribute to reports of various paranormal reports.
- PTSD: In some cases theta activity rises in cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is accompanied by an increased stress response. It results in an individual experiencing random, sporadic, and intense thoughts accompanied by powerful emotions regarding the trauma that was endured. In cases of PTSD, there is usually a blocking of the alpha range, so the person is unable to relax and calm their nerves and remains at the mercy of their powerful stress response.
- Sleep: When we fall asleep, our brains transition from the waking beta range, to the slower alpha range (eyes closed relaxation) to a dominant theta state (sleeping). When you fall asleep, your brain cycles through the theta state and brainwaves cycle at a slower rate. Your physiological level of arousal drops off and the body is given time to heal and restore itself during sleep.
- Spiritual states: Some have argued that since theta is linked to our subconscious mind, it may be observed in spiritual states. It is associated with emotion, spirituality, and having a spiritual connection of some sort. Many individuals that report having “spiritual experiences” or supernatural experiences tend to have greater amounts of theta activity.
- Stress reduction: It has been found that the theta range is helpful for stress reduction. Although it may not be as helpful as the alpha range, it can have benefit simply due to the fact that it is restorative. There are links between certain theta frequencies and lower levels of anxiety, stress, and neurosis. It should be noted that not all individuals with high theta have reduced stress.
- Subconscious mind: It is common thought that theta brain waves help us make subconscious connections. Although alpha bridges the gap between conscious and subconscious, it is theta that is dominant when the subconscious is fully active.
Theta Brain Waves Research
Biofeedback: Theta is commonplace among individuals with ADHD. Typically it is the dominance of the theta range that makes concentration and paying attention extremely difficult. It has been found that by decreasing theta, and increasing faster, beta activity at various regions of the brain allows individuals with ADHD to focus and better regulate both hyperactivity and impulses.
Confusion: Individuals may get confused when trying to understand the theta range simply because “theta” refers to a standard oscillation observed in the hippocampus and connecting regions. However, the term also is used to describe EEG oscillations in the 4 Hz to 7 Hz range – across the entire cortex. It is important to note that there is no correlation between hippocampal theta and cortical theta activity.