Your brain is a bustling hub of electrical activity. This is due to the fact that the cells in your brain, called neurons, use electricity to communicate with each other.
When a group of neurons sends an electrical signal to another group of neurons, we call those brain waves. This is because a computer-generated electroencephalogram (EEG) test that detects and measures the electrical activity in your brain actually creates a picture that looks like a wavelike pattern.
There are five basic types of brain waves that range from very slow to very fast. Alpha waves fall in the middle of that series of waves. Your brain produces these waves when you’re awake but not really concentrating on any one thing.
In this article, we'll take a closer look at what exactly alpha brain waves are, what function they serve, and how they compare to other brain waves.
When you first wake up in the morning, what’s the first thing you do? Perhaps you turn off your alarm clock and stretch. At this point, your brain might be relaxed.
So, while you’re warming up your muscles, your brain is producing alpha waves. You’re not asking your brain to process a lot of information or solve any big problems. The waves simply indicate that you are in a state of wakeful rest.
You may also be able to increase your brain’s production of alpha waves when you stop focusing or concentrating on a task, and simply try to relax and unwind.
Interestingly, a 2009 study suggests that your brain may produce even more alpha waves in the posterior part of your brain when you meditate. Your brain isn’t totally at rest, but it's not attempting to tackle anything big that requires concentration.
Alpha brain waves are only one type of brain wave. There are actually five common types of brain waves.
Brain waves are measured by frequency, which is cycles per second, or hertz (Hz), and they range from very slow to very fast. Alpha waves fit in the middle of the spectrum, between theta waves and beta waves.
Here's the full spectrum of the five common types of brain waves that you experience every day, from slowest to fastest:
When you're deep in a state of dreamless sleep, your brain is producing delta waves, which are the slowest type of brainwave. They measure between 0.5 and 4 Hz.
When you're sleeping more lightly or when you're extremely relaxed, your brain may produce more theta waves. Theta waves measure between 4 and 8 Hz.
As mentioned, alpha waves fall in the middle of the brain wave spectrum.
Your brain produces these waves when you're not focusing too hard on anything in particular. Whatever you’re doing, you’re probably feeling relatively calm and relaxed. These waves measure between 8 and 12 Hz.
With these kinds of brain waves, you’re wide awake, alert, and focused. You’re going about your activities of daily living and making decisions. This is when your brain produces higher-speed beta waves, which measure between about 12 and 35 Hz.
Your brain produces the speediest of brain waves, the gamma waves, when you’re actively involved in processing information and learning. You’re concentrating and solving problems, and these brainwaves, which tend to measure upward of 35 Hz, are the proof.
We can’t see brain waves, but we can measure them. A test called an EEG can identify and measure the electrical activity in your brain.
With an EEG, a technician will place a series of small metal discs called electrodes all over your scalp. The discs convey the electrical activity of your neurons through wires to a machine, which records and prints the patterns out on a screen or paper.
Your doctor may order an EEG to see if there are any unusual patterns in your brain waves, or problems that might suggest you have epilepsy or another type of brain disorder.
You may be wondering why alpha waves are so important. When your brain is producing these waves, it’s responding to activities like meditation and rest that can reduce your stress levels and help you feel calmer.
If you’re able to produce alpha brain waves, you’re probably able to tap into a state that can help you get some rest and relaxation.
Boosting your alpha waves might also increase your creativity levels. In a 2015 study, researchers found evidence that they could trigger a surge in creativity if they specifically focused on enhancing alpha waves.
The study was small — only 20 participants — but as a randomized trial, it could hold promise for the use of noninvasive brain stimulation to rev up your brain’s production of alpha brain waves.
Your brain doesn’t stop producing one type of brain wave just because you shift into a different state of consciousness or alertness.
It’s more that one type of brain wave will dominate at any given time, based on whether you’re awake or asleep, focused, or floating along. If for some reason your brain isn't producing very many alpha waves, it means that you’re not in a relaxed, meditative state of mind.
But there are times when your brain waves can become imbalanced.
Research indicates that some people who have depression may have an imbalance of alpha waves, with more of them occurring in an area of the brain called the left frontal cortex.
You may actually be able to increase your alpha brain waves if you put your mind to it.
In this study, participants with GAD were divided into a treatment group and a control group.
The treatment group that underwent neurofeedback training was able to increase the amplitude of their alpha brain waves. These bigger alpha waves increased the participants' sense of calm and reduced feelings of anxiety.
One caveat: This particular study also included theta waves in the neurofeedback training, which could have also played a role.
However, this study also suggests that it may be possible to train your brain to produce alpha waves that can help you feel more relaxed.
A 2015 study also suggested that meditation and mindfulness training could achieve these kinds of results.
There’s always some type of electrical activity going on in your brain, whether you’re aware of it or not.
At different times of the day, depending on what you’re doing, one type of your brain's electrical waves will dominate. When your brain’s alpha waves are dominating, you're likely in a state of wakeful relaxation.
Relaxation techniques like mindfulness and meditation may help increase your alpha waves. This, in turn, may help you feel calmer, less anxious, and, according to some studies, may even boost your creativity levels.