(this originally appeared on my old Forest of Healing website on December 7, 2012)
(n.b. this is some ultra nerdy shit. I make no apologies.)
Many years ago I taught a week-long soft skills boot camp for a well-known hospitality organization. One of the modules was about stress management. Although I had taken yoga, learned about focusing on my breath and had even tried zazen, I felt a little hokey reading the guided meditation that was supposed to be part of the module.
In a moment of desperation, I dug out a meditation CD that I’d always found soothing and played it while I read the text. About 15 minutes later when I slowly raised the lights and told them they could come back to the present moment, I was shocked to see high-strung line cooks and dour, tasky housekeeping supervisors looking relaxed – a few even blissed out.
Turns out the CD was a Theta meditation recording. I thought that was just some fancy New Age marketing nonsense but in reality it is a real scientific thing. It is based on the concept of brain entrainment, which sounds insidious but really is not. I’m not quite science-teacher enough to get into a detailed discussion of it but in a nutshell, these types of special recordings use something called binaural beats to induce specific types of brainwaves.
Again, not a super science-y explanation but what happens with binaural beats is that a recording is made in stereo where each output (ie. left and right) is at a slightly different frequency. The listener’s brain tries to reconcile this difference and it results in a kind of auditory illusion. Long story short, the brain can be tricked into mimicking the frequency of the discrepancy between left and right. If that frequency is 7 – 13 Hz, you get Alpha waves which are associated with relaxation (waking), drowsiness and REM sleep. Lower the frequency to 4 – 7 Hz and you get Theta waves. These are associated with deep relaxation and meditative states, as well as non-REM sleep. Lower than 4 Hz and you get Delta waves which are associated with deep sleep.
These three brain wave states can obviously be good for you. Under the right circumstances, they can produce calm and restfulness. Obviously, you wouldn’t want to induce Alpha or Theta brain waves while driving your car… or your tractor… or your forklift… you get the idea. Of course Delta is generally only linked with straight up unconscious so let’s not go there unless we’re safely tucked into our Sealy Posturpedic. But if you are looking to make meditation a little easier when you are frazzled, or to soothe yourself during restorative activities, or to get a good night’s sleep, Alpha. Theta and Delta are where it’s at. And meditation recordings that feature binaural beats to help these waves along can’t be… well… beat. (I know, I know, but I couldn’t help myself)
Now, the title of this post mentioned six brain waves and I’ve only talked about three. The other three are Gamma, Beta and Mu. Gamma shows up at 40 Hz and higher; it is associated with complex mental activity such as problem solving and also may be present when you are fearful.Beta waves are all about active concentration and normal cognitive processes; it is probably where your brain spends most of its day and it’s in the 13 – 39 Hz frequency range. The higher range of Beta waves can also signify anxiety, arousal or paranoia.
The higher frequencies of brain waves have both positive and negative associations but what is certain is that when you sustain these ranges for long periods of time, you get tired. This is why desk jobs requiring critical thinking and problem solving can feel more exhausting at times than physical labor! And logically why anxiety, stress and fear can wear our brains out. You need relaxation and sleep to restore your mojo, yo!
The final wave is Mu. Mu waves are interesting. They are in the frequency range of 8 – 12 Hz and show up when we are watching another person and learning by imitating. Studies on the Mu waves only began in the 20th century but they are potentially a key to helping people with autism since it’s been suggested that they are missing some component of that learning-by-imitating thang.
Are you ready to surf your brain waves? Grab some Gamma and Beta to get through your day and induce the Alpha Theta and Delta for relaxation and a good night’s sleep! Need a resource for some binaural meditation recordings? The fine people at Spire Audio have some wonderful resources. Head on over to their Guided Meditation Site and look for Binaural Music under theMusic Downloads menu. It’s good stuff!