What Are Brainwaves?


Quantitative electroencephalography showing brainwaves of various frequencies.

Our brains are constantly shooting off electrical pulses. Whether it’s to tell our heart to beat or to process what we see, our brains are, in a sense, organic batteries. They even produce enough electricity to power a light bulb! EEG’s, or electroencephalographs, map out the electrical activity of our brains. This electrical activity can also be shown graphically.

Ned Herrmann, The Creative Brain

The graphs show the peaks and troughs of electrical activity in the brain. Looking at them, it’s easy to see where the term brainwaves comes from. Since these are graphed as waves, they would be given frequencies. As we can expect, different frequencies correlate with different levels of brain function.

How can we interpret brainwaves?

BrainwaveFrequency (Hz)
Delta0.5-4 Hz
Theta4-8 Hz
Alpha8-13 Hz
Beta13-30 Hz
Gamma30+ Hz
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the higher the frequency, the higher one’s alertness would be. The lower frequencies (delta to alpha) are associated with sleep, meditation, and relaxation. The higher frequencies (beta to gamma) are associated with alertness, problem solving, and excitement.

Delta (0.5-4 Hz)

Delta waves occur during deep, dreamless sleep (dreaming sleep is left to beta waves). They could go even lower than 0.5 Hz, but not 0 Hz. Deep sleep would take someone to the lower end of the range, but brain death would bring him to 0! Ironically, delta waves can occur when one is awake.

You may be in a delta state if you’re:

  • Asleep
  • Frustrated
  • Solving a difficult problem, deeply concentrating (maybe)

Theta (4-8 Hz)

Theta waves occur in states of deep relaxation or even light sleep. Have you ever done something so many times that when you do it, you don’t even realize you’re doing it? You would be in a theta state. Mundane or frequently repeated tasks require little thought and allows one’s mind to disengage from them. Have you ever had a great idea in the shower? Theta waves are also linked to creativity and free, flowing thought. It could be thought of as a sort of “stream of consciousness” state.

You may be in a theta state if you’re doing this:

  • Daydreaming
  • Deep meditation
  • Chores
  • Hypnosis

Alpha (8-13 Hz)

Typically when we take time to rest from an activity such as chores or homework, we are in an alpha state. Alpha states are essentially relaxation states. Whenever we close our eyes, our brains start producing alpha waves.

You may be in an alpha state if you’re doing this:

  • Relaxing
  • Light meditation
  • Walking in a forest
  • Taking a break
  • Waking up/going to bed

Beta (13-30 Hz)

Beta waves show up when one is in a state of arousal. This could include anything from having a lively conversation to retrieving memories. They arrive when one is actively engaged in work, in thought, focusing, and simply when someone’s awake. Though all people are in a beta state during the day, we shouldn’t take it for granted; a lack of beta brainwave activity could lead to depression, ADD, and may be related to insomnia. Ironically enough, beta brainwaves have been shown to occur during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep.

You may be in a beta state if you’re doing this:

  • REM sleep
  • Focus
  • Awake/alert
  • Conversation
  • Playing video games
  • Memory/reminiscence
  • Problem solving

Gamma (30+ Hz)

Gamma waves are very difficult to induce. The vast majority of those who are able to induce themselves into a gamma state are Tibetan monks experienced in meditation. When a group of 8 Tibetan monks were hooked up to EEG machines and told to meditate, it was found that they had incredibly high levels of gamma brainwave activity. Everyday people may experience this when they have a “Eureka!” moment, or are “in the zone,” a phenomenon about which many athletes have spoken.

You may be in a gamma state if you’re:

  • Heavily experienced in deep meditation
  • “In the zone”
  • A flash of inspiration
  • Sudden realization

How can I take advantage of brainwaves?

The first thing one would see when looking up anything on brainwaves is something called brainwave entrainment (BE). This will inevitably lead to finding sources on binaural beats. These topics will be covered in greater detail in a future post; for now, this information will suffice:

Brainwave entrainment (BE) occurs when one’s brainwave frequency synchronizes with an induced frequency. Binaural beats are used as a form of BE in which a tone is played in each ear, each differing by a certain frequency. The difference yields the frequency with which one would like to synchronize and consequently, the coinciding mental state.

For example, if someone would like to use binaural beats to induce a mental state of focus, he may try to synchronize his brainwaves to a beta frequency. In one ear, a tone of 200 Hz is playing, and in the other a tone of 215 Hz. The difference is 15 Hz, falling within the beta frequency range. What he hears is an apparent interference, or beat.


Note: some have taken BE to metaphysical extremes. One should not let claims of BE inducing astral projection, DNA healing, cures for depression, etc., lead him or her away from exploring this science. It is both fascinating, practical, and rewarding given a curious individual is patient and cautious with his or her expectations.

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