Understanding your brain waves and healthy brain function

Photo by  UCI Research
Photo by UCI Research

In my last post, I mentioned the four major subcomponent bands, or brain waves that we focus on in Neurofeedback training; Delta, Theta, Alpha, and Beta. This week, I would like to delve a little deeper into those four brainwaves and how each of them is involved in healthy brain function.

Delta is typically more widely known. This subcomponent band has very large, slow waves. It is associated with the unconscious frame of mind and deep resting stages, specifically stages of deep sleep.

Theta is also associated with decreased levels of consciousness. A slow-wave band, Theta is slightly lower in amplitude and has a slightly increased frequency in comparison to Delta. It is involved in stages of sleep, but is more commonly known for its role in twilight stages between sleeping and awake states, otherwise referred to as unconscious and conscious states.

Like Delta and Theta, Alpha is what we consider a slow-wave subcomponent band, however unlike the former brainwaves, Alpha is associated with awake states. Alpha operates at a lower amplitude, but greater frequency than other slow wave bands. When we are awake but day dreaming or thinking more so passively or creatively, Alpha is most prominent: the brain is not actively tuned-in, but is ready to engage itself at any moment, should need be.

The slow wave subcomponent bands then serve as different forms of resting states for the brain, where processing and integration can occur outside of conscious active alertness. Our subcomponent band then associated with active, alert states is Beta. The Beta brainwave is a fast brainwave, operating at a greater frequency but lower amplitude than other waves. When we are tuned-in, paying attention or problem solving, Beta is most involved.

Due to the very different natures of each of these four subcomponent bands, a careful balance must exist between them at any given time, as well as an ability for the brain to shift the level of each as needed. The brain map taken at the beginning of Neurofeedback therapy allows us to determine how these waves are operating. Based on the activity of each, we can determine if symptoms are a result of abnormalities and determine how to help the brain learn to restore its own balance.

How Neurofeedback addresses poor mental health conditions

How is Neurofeedback able to effectively impact the brain and address poor mental health conditions? Put simply — it is a form of training for the brain. Much like going to the gym to train and create a healthier body, neurofeedback is a mental exercise to train and create a healthier brain.

This training focuses in on four of our major brain waves: Delta, Theta, Alpha, and Beta. Each brain wave operates within a specific frequency range, or in other words, each controls a different level of mental activity. The brain is constantly building new connections which work to govern and create these brain wave patterns. When exposed to prolonged high stress levels, physical trauma, or emotional trauma, the brain continues to construct patterns, but is not as capable of doing so in a beneficial way. The result are dysregulated connections which lead to dysregulated brain wave patterns. Neurofeedback does not erase these poor connections, but rather guides the brain to create new, healthier ones in their place. Doing so leads the brain to inhibit activation of poor connections and the poor brain wave patterns that result.

Neurofeedback training is comprised of individual sessions, where one relaxes and watches a television program. During the program, small sensors monitor brainwave activity. When these brainwave patterns begin to deviate, a signal is produced in real time which allows the brain to recognize what it is doing and identify this as negative. This signal takes form as a fading of the audio and visual content of that television program. The concept seems very simple on the surface, but with time and repetition of training, the brain learns and responds in remarkable ways. Endless research supports the positive effects of this training over the last 30 years, and more with true and tried results. Hence therapy is essentially non-invasive, drug-free, safe, pleasant, and most importantly: effective.

Setting a path toward a healthier state of mind

Photo by Ken Owen
Photo by Ken Owen

How and why do different psychiatric conditions occur? At certain times, it doesn’t always make sense to us; at other times we are able to pinpoint where the brain is misfiring and what likely lead it to do so. Given experiences, environment, habit, genetics, along with many other factors, the brain constructs connections and develops patterns that create the basis for our everyday emotion and cognition. A problem arises though when these connections and patterns are not healthy.

In going throughout one’s everyday life, information and experience are fed through a disordered system. As a result, undesirable symptoms become apparent, indicating a state of poor mental health and oftentimes contributing to negative experiences for those suffering with this situation. The brain built these connections for various reasons, but that does not mean they must always exist in this way. We are constantly generating new cells, learning and integrating new information and constructing novel pathways; although when these conditions become severe, many require intervention and guidance to do so. Neurofeedback is a safe, effective and drug-free therapy that acts in this way.

Rather than forcing the brain into another state, as is the case with many other interventions, Neurofeedback is a form of brain training. This therapy teaches the brain to recognize detrimental wave activity as it is occurring and guides it to instead respond in positive ways. By reinforcing this training over time, the brain changes timing and activation patterns, establishing positive framework in place of negative connections that previously existed. Once the brain has created these new pathways, it is able to maintain healthy function and improved regulation without constant reinforcement of the Neurofeedback device. In absence of disorder, negative symptoms see vast reduction, if not total elimination, and one is no longer left to suffer from these states of mind. The brain is eager to integrate new information and maintain healthy states, but as with any novel subject and learning, we must first teach it how.