Your brain constantly produces bursts of electrical activity. In fact, that’s how groups of neurons in your brain communicate with each other. When your brain produces these electrical pulses, that’s what’s known as brain wave activity.
Your brain produces five different kinds of brain waves, each of which operates at a different speed. From fastest to slowest, the five different types of brain waves include:
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at theta brain waves, their function, and how they differ from other types of brain waves.
Theta brain waves occur when you’re sleeping or dreaming, but they don’t occur during the deepest phases of sleep. They may occur when you’re drifting off to sleep or suspended in that light phase of sleep, just before you wake up.
Theta brain waves can also occur when you’re awake, but in a very deeply relaxed state of mind; a state that some may describe as “autopilot.” However, if you experience high levels of theta waves while you’re awake, you might feel a little sluggish or scattered.
Experts believe that theta waves are important for processing information and making memories. And, as researchers learn more about how they work and how they’re linked to different types of learning, this knowledge may come in handy when determining the best way to help people learn.
A test called an electroencephalogram (EEG) can evaluate the electrical activity in your brain and record the waves, which are measured in cycles per second, or Hertz (Hz).
Different waves occur at different times, based on what you’re doing and how you’re feeling.
Think about your brain waves as a spectrum that ranges from very fast to very slow. This spectrum would not be complete without all five types of brain waves.
Theta waves fall close to the low end of the spectrum. They are slower than alpha waves but faster than delta waves. An EEG would measure theta waves in the 4 to 8 Hz range.
All five types of brain waves have different but important roles to play when it comes to your health and wellbeing. At various times of the day, different types of brain waves will be active, and that’s normal.
Ranging from fastest to slowest, here are the other four types of brain waves that your brain regularly produces.
Your brain produces gamma waves when you’re intensely focused on something, or fully engaged in solving a problem. You’re likely at peak concentration when your brain fires off gamma waves.
Just below gamma waves on the spectrum are the beta waves. These waves fall into the 12-38 Hz range. These are the brain waves that dominate when you’re awake, alert, and engaged.
You can have relatively faster or “high beta” waves, which occur when you’re involved in very complex thought processes. Or, you can have slower or “low beta” waves that tend to occur more when you’re mulling over something.
If your doctor put electrodes on your scalp while you were sitting quietly and relaxing, but not thinking about much, it’s likely that alpha waves would dominate the EEG results.
Alpha brain waves measure between 8 and 12 Hz and fall right in the middle of the spectrum.
All the way at the bottom of the spectrum of brain waves — below theta waves — are the low, deep, slow delta waves.
Both delta waves and theta waves occur when you’re asleep, but delta waves are the waves that dominate when you’re in a period of deep, restorative sleep. They measure in the 0.5 and 4 Hz range.
We’re still learning about how theta waves work and how it may be possible to boost their activity, and why that might be appropriate or beneficial.
Although research is limited, there is some information that’s come to light about theta brain waves in recent years.
Consider the results of a small 2017 brain wave study. The researchers analyzed the results of wireless implants that recorded brain wave activity in four volunteers.
They found that theta wave oscillations increased when the participants were trying to move around in an unfamiliar environment. Additionally, the researchers learned that theta wave activity tended to speed up when the study participants moved faster.
Another 2017 study explored the way that theta wave activity seems to be linked to one particular type of learning. This type of learning occurs when you’re doing something that you may not have conscious access to, like learning to ride a bike. This is known as implicit learning.
This research suggests that examining brain wave activity could be helpful in figuring out how to teach people to learn certain kinds of information, or to perform certain tasks.
The researchers also noted that they may be able to use the evidence of theta wave activity to detect disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
More research is needed to further illustrate how theta brain wave patterns could be used to help people learn and form memories, and to ward off anxiety.
One possible way to influence your brain and its production of theta waves is by listening to binaural beats.
Picture yourself wearing a headset. In your left ear, you can hear a sound that’s one particular frequency, but the sound that you hear in your right ear is slightly different, perhaps a slightly faster or slower frequency.
Your brain has to adjust to hearing these two competing frequencies at the same time, so eventually you begin hearing a separate tone created from the difference of those two frequencies.
Can binaural beats put you in a theta state of mind?
Some people believe that listening to binaural beats can help you calm down and relax. Some even propose that binaural beats could help you sleep better.
A 2017 study found that a certain type of binaural beat helped some people achieve a meditative state. More research is need to learn about how it could be adapted for relaxation and stress reduction in the future.
Your brain produces five kinds of brain waves, each of which operate at a different speed. Some are very fast, while others are much slower. Theta waves are slower than gamma, beta, and alpha waves, but faster than delta waves.
Your brain tends to produce theta waves when you’re sleeping or dreaming. They tend to occur when you’re drifting off to sleep or just before you wake up. Theta brain waves can also occur when you’re awake and in a very deeply relaxed state of mind.
There is still a lot to learn about the electrical activity of the brain. What we know so far about theta waves is that they help us learn, and perhaps one day, we will know more about how we can use this knowledge to improve our ability to relax and learn more effectively.