The Communicating Brain: Clapping “the Wave”
I travel to New York often, and I love going to see Broadway musicals. When The Book of Mormon opened, I was one of the first to buy tickets. Members of the audience were laughing all the way through. At the end, the cast got a standing ovation.
Suddenly, the applause changed. Rather than a thousand people clapping separately, everyone began to clap in rhythm. Clap, clap, clap, clap. The rhythmic clapping become so insistent that the actors came back onstage for an encore. The clapping communicated approval to the actors, and they responded with another song.
The neurons in your brain do something similar. They fire together in rhythmic patterns, communicating with each other across the brain. These patterns are measured in cycles per second, or Hertz (Hz). Imagine an audience clapping together slowly. That’s a slow brain wave, with millions of neurons firing together slowly. Imagine an audience clapping quickly. That’s a fast brain wave, with millions of neurons firing together quickly.
Today’s EEGs calculate brain wave patterns from each of the brain’s many different parts. They typically use 19 electrodes attached to the surface of the scalp.
One research team observed, “Scientists are now so accustomed to these EEG correlations with brain state that they may forget just how remarkable they are…. A single electrode provides estimates of synaptic action averaged over tissue masses containing between roughly 100 million and 1 billion neurons” (Nunez & Srinivasan, 2006). When we see brain wave changes on an EEG, it indicates that the firing patterns of billions of neurons in our brains are also changing.
What Brain Waves Are and What They Do
There are five basic brain waves that are picked up by a modern EEG.
1. Gamma Brain Waves
Gamma is the highest brain wave frequency (40 to 100 Hz). It’s most prevalent at times when the brain is learning, making associations between phenomena and integrating information from many different parts of the brain.
A brain producing lots of gamma waves reflects complex neural organization and heightened awareness. When monks were asked to meditate on compassion, large flares of gamma were found in their brains (Davidson & Lutz, 2008).
They were compared to novice meditators who had meditated for an hour a day the week before. The novices had brain activity similar to that of the monks. But when the monks were instructed to evoke a feeling of compassion, their brains began to fire in rhythmic coherence, like the audience clapping at The Book of Mormon musical.
The flares of gamma waves measured in the brains of the monks were the largest ever recorded. The monks reported entering a state of bliss. Gamma is associated with very high levels of intellectual function, creativity, integration, peak states, and of feeling “in the zone.” Gamma waves flow from the front to the back of the brain about 40 times per second (Llinás, 2014). Researchers look to this oscillating wave as a neural correlate of consciousness (NCC), a state linking the brain’s activity with the subjective experience of consciousness (Tononi & Koch, 2015).
Brain researchers talk about the amplitude of a brain wave and that simply means how big it is. A high amplitude of gamma means a big gamma wave, while a low amplitude means a small one. Measurements of brain waves show peaks and valleys. The distance from the peak to the trough is the amplitude. Amplitude is measured in microvolts, and brain waves typically measure between 10 and 100 microvolts, with the faster waves like gamma having the lowest amplitude.
Gamma brain wave states are associated with many beneficial changes in our bodies. A frequency of 75 Hz is epigenetic, triggering the genes that produce anti-inflammatory proteins in the body (De Girolamo et al., 2013). On the lower end of the gamma spectrum, a frequency of 50 Hz results in the body increasing its production of stem cells, the “blank” cells that differentiate into muscle, bone, skin, or whatever other specialized cells are required (Ardeshirylajimi & Soleimani, 2015). The frequency of 60 Hz regulates the expression of stress genes, those that code for stress hormones like cortisol. The same brain wave frequency also activates a key gene called Myc that in turn regulates around 15 percent of all the other genes in the body (Lin, Goodman, & Shirley‐Henderson, 1994).
EEG brain waves from slowest to fastest.
2. Beta Brain Waves
The next fastest wave is beta (12 to 40 Hz). Beta is typically divided into two parts: high beta and low beta. High beta is your monkey mind. High beta (15 to 40 Hz) is the signature brain wave of people with anxiety, people experiencing frustration, and people under stress.
The more stressed people become, the higher the amplitude of the beta their brains produce. Negative emotions such as anger, fear, blame, guilt, and shame produce large flares of beta waves in the EEG readout.
This shuts down the brain regions that handle rational thinking, decision making, memory, and objective evaluation (LeDoux, 2002). Blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, the “thinking brain,” is reduced by up to 80 percent. Starved of oxygen and nutrients, our brains’ ability to think clearly plummets.
Low beta is the band that synchronizes our bodies’ automatic functions, so it’s also called the sensorimotor rhythm frequency, or SMR (12 to 15 Hz).
Beta is required for processing information and for linear thinking, so normal levels of beta brain wave states are fine.
When you focus on solving a problem, composing a poem, calculating the best route to your destination, or balancing your checkbook, beta waves are your friend. SMR represents a calm, focused mental state. It’s stress that produces high beta, especially above 25 Hz.
3. Alpha Brain Waves
Alpha (8 to 12 Hz) is an optimal state of relaxed alertness. Alpha connects the higher frequencies—the thinking mind of beta and the associative mind of gamma—with the two lowest frequency brain waves, which are theta (4 to 8 Hz) and delta (0 to 4 Hz).
It turns out that alpha also does good things for our bodies. It improves our levels of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters such as serotonin. When the alpha brain wave level increased in a group of exercisers, they gained a boost in serotonin, and their emotional state was elevated (Fumoto et al., 2010). In another study, Zen meditators received the same benefits from cultivating an alpha state (Yu et al., 2011).
A pioneering study exposed DNA to various brain wave frequencies. It found that the alpha frequency of 10 Hz resulted in significantly increased synthesis of the DNA molecule (Takahashi, Kaneko, Date, & Fukada, 1986).
4. Theta Brain Waves
Theta is characteristic of deep relaxation and light sleep. When we dream vividly, our eyes move rapidly and our brains are primarily in theta. These brain waves are the frequency of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Theta is also the dominant frequency of people under hypnosis, healers, people in trances, and people in highly creative states of consciousness (Kershaw & Wade, 2012). The recollection of emotional experiences, both good and bad, can trigger theta.
It’s the frequency most commonly observed in healers. Becker (1990) found that when healers were in the midst of an energy healing session, theta was the most common wave in their brains.
Theta is associated with many beneficial changes in the body. A group of researchers studied the effect of various frequencies on DNA repair. They found that electromagnetic fields between 7.5 Hz and 30 Hz were able to enhance molecular bonding (Tekutskaya, Barishev, & Ilchenko, 2015). Within that range, 9 Hz proved most effective.
5. Delta Brain Waves
The slowest frequency is delta. Delta is characteristic of deep sleep. Very high amplitudes of delta are also found in people who are in touch with the nonlocal mind, even when they’re wide awake. The brains of meditators, intuitives, and healers have much more delta than normal.
The eyes of people who are in deep dreamless sleep don’t move. Delta waves also predominate in such non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep.
Delta is the wave that we see in EEG readouts when people are having a sense of connection with the infinite. They typically report mystical experiences in which the local self merges with the nonlocal self. Meditators with large amplitudes of delta feel connected to all of nature, to other human beings, and to the infinite. They lose the sense of being an isolated individual, or what Albert Einstein called the delusion of separateness. Instead, they experience oneness with all that is.
When our brains are producing delta, we are bathing our cells in a frequency that has the potential to produce a whole gamut of beneficial physiological changes at the level of our cells, from growing our telomeres and boosting our growth hormone levels to regenerating our neurons and sweeping our brains clear of beta-amyloid plaques. We are not just having a nice subjective experience; in the delta state, we are creating an objective energy environment in which our bodies thrive.
Awakening from Everyday Reality
EEG pioneer Maxwell Cade noticed that alpha, in the middle of the range of frequencies, forms a bridge between the two high frequencies of beta and gamma and the two low frequencies of theta and delta (Cade & Coxhead, 1979). Biofeedback and neurofeedback skills focus on teaching people how to get into an alpha state. The ideal state is enough alpha to link all of the other brain rhythms together. High beta is minimized, so that there is very little monkey mind and anxiety. There is a balanced amount of gamma and theta, and a wide base of delta.
A biophysicist, Cade had worked on radar for the British government before turning his attention to measuring states of consciousness. He developed his own machine, the “mind mirror,” in 1976. It is unique among EEG devices in that it provides a clear visual snapshot of brain waves.
His student Anna Wise described the machine as follows: “What sets the Mind Mirror apart from other forms of electroencephalography was the interest, on the part of its developer, not in pathological states (as in the case of medical devices), but in an optimum state called the Awakened Mind. Instead of measuring subjects with problems, the inventor of the Mind Mirror sought the most highly developed and spiritually conscious people he could find. In the flicker of their brainwaves, he and his colleagues found a common pattern, whether the subject was a yogi, a Zen master or a healer.”
The Awakened Mind
Using the mind mirror, over 20 years, Cade recorded the brain wave patterns of more than 4,000 people with strong spiritual practices. He found the Awakened Mind state was common in this group. Cade also noticed another similarity: they all had high amounts of alpha brain waves. As noted, alpha waves are right in the middle of the spectrum, with beta and gamma above, and theta and delta below. When someone in the Awakened Mind state has lots of alpha, it creates a link between the high brain wave frequencies above and the low frequencies below. Cade called this the alpha bridge, because it bridges the conscious mind frequencies of beta with the subconscious and unconscious mind frequencies of theta and delta. This allows a flow of consciousness, integrating all the levels of mind.
Cade wrote: “The awakening of awareness is like gradually awakening from sleep and becoming more and more vividly aware of everyday reality—only it’s everyday reality from which we are awakening!” (Cade & Coxhead, 1979).
I developed a meditation method called EcoMeditation that’s very simple, yet it’s consistently and automatically able to bring people into the Awakened Mind EEG pattern. EcoMeditation uses EFT tapping to clear obstacles to relaxation. It then takes you through a series of simple physical relaxation exercises that send signals of safety to the brain and body. It does not rely on belief or philosophy; instead, it’s based on sending the body physiological cues that produce deeply relaxed states of consciousness automatically. The instructions are free at EcoMeditation.com.
During EcoMeditation, we see lots of delta brain waves as well. Delta is where we connect with many resources above and beyond the local self. As noted, people in trance states, as well as healers, artists, musicians, and intuitives, tend to have plenty of delta.
Those in a creative trance, such as a composer making music or a child at play, usually have lots of delta waves. They lose all awareness of the outer world as they become absorbed in their creativity. They’re mostly in delta, with some theta and alpha, and just enough beta to function (Gruzelier, 2009).
It’s been fascinating to me to speak to people whose brain wave states show a high amplitude of delta waves during meditation. They report transcendent experiences. They describe feeling one with the universe, an exquisite sense of harmony and well-being (Johnson, 2011). Albert Einstein referred to this as an expansive state of consciousness in which we “embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature.” Scientists can be mystics too!
When Consciousness Changes, Brain Waves Change
The energy fields of brain waves and the matter of neural pathways are in a constantly evolving dance. When states of consciousness change, brain waves change and different neural pathways are engaged.
The extremes are love and fear. When we’re in a state of fear, our alpha bridge disappears. We may still have theta and delta, but we’re cut off from the resources of our subconscious mind and its connection with the universal whole. Beta waves flood the fearful brain. It’s in survival mode.
When we’re in a state of bliss, our brains show the Awakened Mind pattern. A step beyond, they can also move to a symmetrical pattern Cade called the Evolved Mind. As our consciousness is filled with love, our brains function very differently, with large amounts of theta and delta, plus an alpha bridge to connect our conscious with our subconscious mind.
Emotions create brain states. Brain waves measure the fields generated by consciousness. Passing signals through the neural bundles engaged by love, joy, and harmony creates a characteristic energy field (Wright, 2017). When monitoring the brains of people doing EcoMeditation, EEG expert Judith Pennington observed that “theta and delta progressed their patterns from the Awakened Mind to the Evolved Mind state.”
Emotions also create neurotransmitters. Among these are serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, and anandamide (Kotler & Wheal, 2017). Serotonin is associated with satisfaction, and dopamine with a sensation of reward. Endorphins block pain and increase pleasure. Oxytocin is the “bonding hormone,” and it stimulates feelings of closeness and intimacy with others. Anandamide is called the “bliss molecule,” and it’s named after the Sanskrit word for happiness. It binds to the same receptors in the brain as THC, the primary psychoactive molecule in marijuana. When the mind changes, it creates molecular facts in the form of these neurotransmitters. As they flood our brains, we feel satisfied, secure, bonded, blissful, and serene. When our minds enter elevated emotional states, we’re literally getting high—on drugs produced by our bodies.
Consciousness Shifts the Way the Brain Processes Information
When we meditate, tap (EFT), use another form of energy psychology, or otherwise shift our consciousness, the brain changes quickly. The brain can be intentionally changed by the mind, especially by what is known as attention training (Schwartz & Begley, 2002). True transformation repatterns neural pathways. Eventually, the entire state of the brain shifts and establishes a new and healthy level of homeostasis.
One research team notes that “an accelerating number of studies in the neuroimaging literature significantly support the thesis that… with appropriate training and effort, people can systematically alter neural circuitry associated with a variety of mental and physical states that are frankly pathological” (Schwartz, Stapp, & Beauregard, 2005). We can take our dysfunctional brain networks and alter them with our minds.
It’s not just mystics and healers who produce large alpha bridges and theta brain wave flares when they’re in ecstatic states. Groups for whom high performance is critical are finding that tuning the brain in this way produces big leaps in achievement. U.S. Navy SEALs need to operate effectively in rapidly changing combat conditions. Using millions of dollars of advanced EEG equipment in a “Mind Gym” specially constructed in Norfolk, Virginia, they learn to enter a state they call ecstasis (Cohen, 2017). Once they “flip the switch” into ecstasis, their brains are in a state of flow, an altered reality in which super-performance becomes possible. Other peak performers, such as elite courtroom lawyers, Olympic athletes, and Google executives, also train themselves to enter ecstasis.
The characteristics of these flow states are described in the book Stealing Fire (Kotler & Wheal, 2017). Among them are selflessness and timelessness. People in ecstasis transcend the boundaries of local mind. EEG readings show that the prefrontal cortex of their brains, the seat of a sense of self, shuts down. Beta-wave mental chatter ceases. They gain distance from the anxious obsessions of local mind. Their internal chemistry changes as “feel-good” neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, anandamide, and oxytocin flood their brains.
In this state, they gain a nonlocal perspective. They are open to an infinite range of possible options and outcomes. The self, rather than being trapped in a limited fixed local reality, is able to try on different possibilities. This “knocks out filters we normally apply to incoming information,” leading to associative leaps that facilitate problem solving and super-creativity. Kotler and Wheal (2017) review the research on the performance gains produced by these brain wave states. These include a 490 percent improvement in mental focus, a doubling of creativity, and a 500 percent increase in productivity.
Commonalities in Mystical Experience
The neuroscientists I’ve worked with have instructed experienced meditators to provide prearranged signals during meditation, such as tapping their forefinger three times when they feel the experience of oneness. We can time-stamp this spot on the EEG readout. This has allowed us to correlate their internal experience with brain states.
During ecstasis, whether found in the ancient accounts of Tukaram or the modern experiences of the Navy SEALs, people have common experiences. These are linked to neurotransmitters: entering a state of bliss (anandamide), a sense of detachment from the body that encapsulates the local self (endorphins), the local self bonding with the nonlocal universe (oxytocin), serenity (serotonin), and the reward of being changed by the experience (dopamine).
These are the characteristics of upgraded minds, and we now have EEGs and neurotransmitter assays to measure the changes they produce in matter. In the past, ecstatic states were attainable only by mystics, and it took decades of study, rigorous practice, ascetic discipline, and spiritual initiation. Today, “we now know the precise adjustments to body and brain that let us recreate them for ourselves” at will; technology is providing us with “a Cliff Notes version of… how to encounter the divine” (Kotler & Wheal, 2017). Today, the highest-performing humans in the fields of sports, business, combat, science, meditation, and art are inducing them routinely. Tomorrow, as we map the physiology of these states and turn ecstasis into a learnable skill, they will be available to everyone.
Excerpted with permission from Mind to Matter: The Astonishing Science of How Your Brain Creates Material Reality by Dawson Church, Ph.D. Available online at hayhouse.com and Amazon.com.