Brainwaves and States of Consciousness

“Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And three fold in soft Beulahs night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newtons sleep”

– William Blake

While mystics talk of ineffable states of consciousness, science likes to have some measurable reference points. Although common-sense experience tells us that we go through cycles of waking, dreaming and deep sleep, biofeedback has given us a way to understand these in terms of brainwaves. At the root of all our thoughts, emotions and behaviors is the communication between neurons within our brains. Brainwaves are produced by synchronized electrical pulses from masses of neurons communicating with each other.
Our ordinary states of consciousness are identified by four brainwave patterns:

Beta: 13-30 cycles/sec. This frequency is associated with our normal waking state of thinking, problem solving, and externalized awareness.

Alpha: 8-13 cycles/sec. for adults, 4-7 cycles/sec. in children. Alpha frequencies indicate a state where the mind is becoming empty and receptive. They can usually be produced only with the eyes closed, and they signal the beginning stages of meditation.

Theta: 4-7 cycles/sec. This is associated with drowsiness, inspiration, deep meditation and access to the unconscious mind.

Delta: 0.5-4 cycles / sec. This frequency is associated with deep sleep and paranormal phenomena.

There are also Gamma brainwaves that vibrate at 30 – 42 HZ and sub-delta waves vibrating at cycles below .5 HZ. Gamma brainwaves need to be distinguished from the “gamma rays” known to physics. One source says, “Gamma brain waves are the fastest brainwave frequency with the smallest amplitude. They are associated with the “feeling of blessings” reported by experienced meditators such as monks and nuns, and with peak concentration and extremely high levels of cognitive functioning”. The sub-delta waves seem to underly our basic brain functioning.
As noted above, Beta frequency brainwaves are associated with our waking state of consciousness. They tune us in to the external sensory world and practical thinking within it. Beta waves are essential for us to function in the world. Studies have shown that ADD, or Attention-Deficit Disorder, is associated an inability to sustain Beta waves and a tendency to drift into daydream Theta waves. On the other hand, people who experience stress and anxiety may function too much on the Beta level.
Alpha brainwaves are associated with introversion and relaxation. They indicate a state receptive to learning while keeping a balance between the analytical tendencies of the waking mind and the dreamlike qualities of the Theta state. Meditation enables us to maintain a balance between conscious and unconscious states. Novice meditators fluctuate between low beta and alpha states. They struggle with their habitual tendency to focus on the sensory environment and stressful thinking about the future.
The Alpha-Theta state is the domain of meditation and hypnosis. It opens a door into the unconscious. There are three things that can be done in this state: developing awareness of and removing negative subconscious programs (i.e. belief systems) and installing new positive programs. This can be done through either hypnotherapy, self-hypnosis or meditation. Through meditation, we develop the witnessing consciousness. This is the ability to observe subconscious thoughts rather than embody them. It is a higher form of metacognition, or ability to “think about thinking.”
Hypnotic suggestion is a way of installing positive beliefs in the subconscious. There are various ways of introducing a hypnotic trance state. I use the progressive relaxation approach which is most common. In a deeply relaxed state the subconscious mind becomes receptive and the conscious ego filter is down. Suggestion can take the form of verbal commands, visualizations or metaphorical stories. Again, this occurs within the alpha and theta brainwave range.
Delta brainwaves are associated with deep sleep. Even in this state the unconscious mind is aware and takes in suggestions. Advanced meditators able to maintain awareness in this state. Dr. Jose Silva refers to the “Delta doorway” through which we have contact with a transcendent spiritual dimension. Dr. Silva’s discovery is reminiscent of the Upanishad statement that awareness of the deep sleep state opens a door to abiding joy.
Gamma brainwaves were discovered later and are still controversial. However, a study involving Tibetan monks who were advanced meditators suggests that gamma brainwaves indicate a higher state of consciousness. “A 2004 study took eight long-term Tibetan Buddhist practitioners of meditation and, using electrodes, monitored the patterns of electrical activity produced by their brains as they meditated. The researchers compared the brain activity of the monks to a group of novice meditators (the study had these subjects meditate an hour a day for one week prior to empirical observation). In a normal meditative state, both groups were shown to have similar brain activity. However, when the monks were told to generate an objective feeling of compassion during meditation, their brain activity began to fire in a rhythmic, coherent manner, suggesting neuronal structures were firing in harmony. This was observed at a frequency of 25–40 Hz, the rhythm of gamma waves. These gamma-band oscillations in the monk’s brain signals were the largest seen in humans (apart from those in states such as seizures). Conversely, these gamma-band oscillations were scant in novice meditators. Though, a number of rhythmic signals did appear to strengthen in beginner meditators with further experience in the exercise, implying that the aptitude for one to produce gamma-band rhythm is trainable.
For me, the most interesting and important aspect of this research is the evidence that conscious awareness can intentionally modify and utilize various levels of consciousness. A master can function well in beta for ordinary activities that require wakefulness and attention to the sensory world, rest in alpha for learning and stress release, dive into theta for creativity and even delta for connection to Source. Gamma brainwaves indicate an integration of all states and a higher functioning of consciousness that indicates a further evolution of human consciousness.

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