I first heard about alpha waves during a sleep study I underwent many, many years ago. Back then, I didn’t know much about them other than they were intruding into my sleep. That sleep problem eventually resolved itself, and I thought no more of alpha waves until the day of my closed head injury. As a result, I learnt way more about alpha waves, small, interesting waves that feature in so much of our cognitive functioning, especially, for me, reading.
Note: What I’m about to write I learnt from the psychologists I saw for brain injury rehab and treatment and from my own experience. I have not been able to find complete, clear articles on the subject on the Internet.
Alpha waves are in the 8 to 11 Hz range of brain frequencies. People with higher IQs generally have alpha waves of about 11; the average wave frequency, I believe, is 10. Often with brain injury, one’s alpha waves drop in frequency. That is what happened to me. And it affected my reading.
My closed head injury dropped the frequency of my alpha waves to 8Hz from a probable 11Hz. Shortly after my brain injury, I started receiving neurofeedback treatments, similar to what is now called audiovisual entrainment. The goal was to entrain my entire brain to produce more alpha waves of a higher frequency. It helped but only temporarily. Over five years later, I began brain biofeedback. One of its goals was not only to stimulate specific areas of the brain that were not producing alpha waves normally to produce them, but also to raise the frequency back up permanently.
The effect of having one’s brain stimulated to produce alpha waves and alpha waves of a higher frequency can be pretty dramatic. My mind goes from blankness – and in the early years, it really was total blankness, not a thought rattling around in there – to thoughts popping up, coming at me, creating ideas, energizing my mind so that by the time I’m done an audiovisual entrainment session, for example, I have a blog idea, I have words for that idea, I have the cognitive vitality to write that idea down too. Usually, the dramatic effect is short lived, lasting hours. And these days, during an alpha-wave audiovisual entrainment session, I don’t experience such a marked increase in thought production. That’s probably because the brain biofeedback, and then spontaneous healing since then, gradually increased the baseline frequency of my alpha waves towards 11Hz; so my thinking – actual production of thoughts and ideas – improved to point that I no longer felt like a dullard, slow and blank, but a thinking human being.
Alpha waves do more than create thoughts and stimulate imagination though. They are also open awareness waves. They’re what help you see the buildings across the street, the cars passing you by, the squirrel hopping along by your side so that they don’t suddenly seem to jump out of nowhere. I found that audiovisual entrainment didn’t seem to really affect this aspect of cognition, before I began brain biofeedback anyway. My brain biofeedback plan included stimulating the left frontal lobe to produce high-frequency alpha waves (and depress either theta or delta waves, I don’t remember which, but I produced too much of both when awake anyway). After one of these sessions, I’d exit the clinic and suddenly perceive the street as though I’d never seen it before even though I’d walked up it only one hour earlier. It’s not that I hadn’t seen the cars or buildings earlier; it’s that they somehow were not there. Over time, I began to be less startled by things or squirrels and to perceive my surroundings normally. However, there was a more important reason for choosing that area for alpha-wave stimulation: reading. That area is one of three on the left side and back that are involved in reading. In reading, the open awareness alpha waves give you the big picture of the book or article. It’s what lets you know and remember what happened and gives you a sense of what might happen, to integrate what you’re reading in the present into the big picture that you’re building up as you go along.
I remember when I first had a glimpse of the big picture. It was like my mind suddenly expanded like an exploding star and I could “see” what I’d read earlier and how what I was reading right then fit into the emerging story. Unfortunately, the effect didn’t last. Further sessions consolidated some of that open awareness over time so that I no longer perceive just what I’m reading in the moment. But I still cannot hold the entire big picture in my mind, not even with my own writing. Which is why I rely heavily on an outline and on others to ensure the story flows.
Alpha waves are the waves of creativity and thought and understanding. Having them means having an active, engaged, creating mind. Without them, life is a bit boring and un-understandable.