Alpha brain waves are one of 5 types of dominant waves created in the brain.
Brain waves are created by groups of neurons communicating with each other.
We call them waves because when looked at through an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, these communications take on a wave-like format.
Alpha waves are like the middle road, straddling between delta and theta waves below them and beta and gamma waves above them.
In this post I will take a look at what function alpha waves serve and why they are beneficial. I'll also provide recommendations on how you can increase alpha brainwaves production.
What Are Alpha Brain Waves
Alpha waves operate at between 8-12 Hertz (Hz).
Being in an alpha state is associated with the ‘flow state', or being in the zone: a state of being fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus.
We associate alpha with being present and in the moment. You could say it is a state of mindfulness.
It may sound contradictory, but alpha is also the resting state for the brain. These waves help with calmness and alertness, and mental coordination.
Research shows that alpha waves are present in the posterior of the brain when we meditate, which confirms the link to the flow state and being in a state of calm focus.
To summarize, when alpha waves are dominant in the brain, we are usually in one of the following states:
- Relaxed focus
- Stress reduction
- Positive thinking
- Accelerated learning
- Flow state
What Are the Benefits of Alpha Waves?
The main benefit of increasing your alpha wave production is to improve performance. Alpha waves help us focus and be more productive.
It is said that alpha brain waves are the most rhythmical, so when you are listening you are more likely to be paying attention to your inner experience rather than what's going on around you – thus the association with the “Zen Zone”.
As one study from 2015 shows, alpha waves also improve creativity. Here's an excerpt from the study explaining that 10 Hz alpha waves increased creativity.
Here we show that creativity is increased by enhancing alpha power using 10 Hz transcranial alternating current stimulation (10 Hz-tACS) of the frontal cortex.
In a study of 20 healthy participants with a randomized, balanced cross-over design, we found a significant improvement of 7.4% in the Creativity Index measured by the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT), a comprehensive and most frequently used assay of creative potential and strengths.
Other key benefits, as reported in Michael Hutchison's excellent book Megabrain, include a reduction in heart rate, blood pressure and sweating. There is a greater functioning of the digestion system, a deeper relaxation of muscles, and an increase in the percentage of oxygen and blood flowing to the brain.
Interestingly, this ties into a wider conclusion as to how alpha brainwaves are linked to peak performance and success.
The Relaxation Response
The ‘relaxation response is a term coined by Dr Herbert Benson from Harvard Medical School. In short, it is the human way of reversing the effects of stress and the physical stress response.
Dr Herbert Benson looked at top performers to understand why it is that they can remain cool as the proverbial cucumber while under pressure.
He found that an ability to access the relaxation response – characterized by alpha brain waves – was beneficial to mind and body. And not just when under stress, but at any time required.
The relaxation response correlates with the ‘flow state', a term coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, which is also associated with alpha waves production. In his 2004 TeD Talk, Csíkszentmihályi noted:
There's this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback.
What Does the Alpha State Feel Like?
Have you ever stopped to take a minute and look around, to really pay attention to life and the noise in the background. Every else on your mind disappears in that moment.
Or perhaps you have taken some slow, deep breaths while sitting quietly in the park and transported your mind to more peaceful place. Or taken a solitary walk in a forest or by a lake.
You instantly feel more relaxed and connected. You get that sense that “You know what, everything is going to turn out just fine”.
It is a feeling of being zoned in. You are calm but not attached. Ready but present and not anxious.
That's the Alpha state of mind. It is an understated feeling of being effortlessly immersed.
Alpha Waves Vs. Other Brainwaves
Delta waves measure between 1 and 4 Hz. This is the slowest type of brainwave. They are abundant in a state of deep sleep (stage 3).
Delta waves are associated with access to the unconscious mind, healing, DHEA release and cortisol reduction, and pain relief.
Theta waves measure between 4 and 8 Hz. We associate theta with light sleep, deep relaxation, meditation, and creativity.
As noted previously mentioned, alpha waves measure between 8 and 14 Hz. This is the middle state; the middle road of calm but not asleep, focused but not anxious, immersed but not stressed.
Beta waves measure approximately between 14 and 30 Hz. I say approximately as there is a little debate about when the spectrum starts and finishes.
Beta waves are high frequency and associated with problem solving and high-level cognition. Beta waves stimulate action and energy.
Gamma waves measure from 30 Hz up to 100+ Hz. 40 Hz is associated with memory recall and high level information processing.
Gamma is a state of peak awareness, and a gateway to transcendental states.
High gamma waves indicate the ‘fight or flight' state, one of stress and anxiety.
What Happens If You Don't Produce Enough Alpha Waves?
The brain doesn't stop producing one type of brainwave (theta, beta, etc.,) at any time, but rather one type becomes dominant in a given situation.
So when meditating you might be producing more theta waves, and when stressed more gamma waves.
However, it is possible to be deficient.
An EEG test may determine that you produce too few alpha or too many delta waves. The most common email I get is from those who have been diagnosed with too many of one and not enough of the other.
If you aren't producing enough alpha waves then you may feel unable to concentrate for long. You may feel unfocused and unproductive. You may feel anxious or agitated. These symptoms are similar to that of ADHD.
To address this problem I recommend trying brainwave entrainment and neurofeedback therapy. The former is far less expensive.
How to Increase Alpha Waves?
If you'd like to produce more alpha waves at a given time then brainwave entrainment with binaural beats is something you might try.
Through a process called ‘frequency following response' binaural beats entrain the brain to follow along at a particular frequency. I have given some recommendations in the section below.
I you can afford it, you can also try neurofeedback training. Neurofeedback trains brain function by measuring brainwaves and feeding back waves to the brain to promote self-regulation.
A 2014 study found that neurofeedback helped stimulate alpha waves to reduce anxiety in those with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
The results showed that increase of alpha and theta brain waves amplitude in occipital area in people with GAD can increase the global functioning level and can reduce symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder in a treatment group.
Note that this study also included the use of theta waves. We know that theta waves are characterized by deep relaxation/meditation, so this would also have played a role.
What we can take from this is that using a mixture of alpha and theta brainwave entrainment could help reduce anxiety. It certainly has for me.
Binaural Beats for Alpha Wave Production
Brainwave entrainment works without any conscious effort on your part. You simply put on your headphones and listen.
Alpha frequency music is generally be used for focus, studying, and getting into the zone.
I personally use alpha to center my mind for work, and also before events that require me to be calm, composed, and attentive.
There are many other benefits to this type of music, which I have summarized here: benefits of binaural beats.
Top 4 Alpha Brainwaves Downloads:
This is my go-to alpha waves music for work and study. It has a backdrop of natural ambience and a gentle piano that helps you zone in on what you are doing. You are given a 30-minute and 1-hour version.
As we've discussed in this article, the flow state is a state that merges your awareness and actions to create energized focus in the present moment. This helps you achieve optimal levels of mental and physical performance.
I listen to this during a creative activity (like making music) or before a physical challenge like a 5km run to “get into the zone”.
One of my all time favorites, this has a really soothing soundtrack (Native American flute style). This contains theta and alpha waves, so good for mental clarity and reducing anxiety.
This is a 4-track program for meditation, including 2 alpha and 2 theta tracks. If you're focussed on doing meditation then this is a good option.
Alpha Waves, in Summary
Our brainwaves are always active. We always have a spectrum of different brainwaves going on at any given time, as our neurons communicate in groups. But there is usually an obvious dominant brain state.
At specific times we want that brain state to be a certain one, like delta when we need restful sleep, theta when we want to deeply relax, and alpha when we want to “get in the zone” for peak performance.
With technology like brainwave entrainment (in this case binaural beats) and neurofeedback training we can entrain the brain to produce more alpha waves, which can reduce anxiety and increase focus, creativity, and productivity.