Alpha Waves - The Science Behind Being 'In The Flow"
Have you ever been working on a project and been really in the flow? Maybe you were able to sit down and work for hours without even noticing the time pass. Deadlines were not a cause of stress, but simply something that gave you a guideline to work by. Maybe as you were working creative ideas on how to improve your work or workflow came easily, and it was easy to integrate them? Or during an activity maybe movements seemed to come naturally? It could also mean a particularly fulfilling meditation session. All these are examples of being in a ‘flow state’. Sometimes people chalk this up to natural talent or ability, but really there is a science behind it. And you guessed it, this famous flow state everybody desires is related to brain wave activity. Specifically, alpha waves.
Now that we have a better understanding of what brain waves are, we can look at how they allow us to move throughout our day, including how we handle different tasks, learning, as well as rest and relaxation. We will also learn how teaching the brain to enter certain states can make our tasks seem less stressful, help us focus, and improve our creativity. If you haven't read last week's blog, A Deeper Dive Into Brain Waves, now is a good time to give it a read. It will help give some foundational knowledge that will be helpful in understanding the rest of this post.
As we learned last week, alpha waves range from 8-12Hz, landing them in the middle range of the frequencies that define brain waves. Alpha wave activity is increased when you are relaxed, but focused. This is the state we often refer to as the ‘flow state’. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to enter this state on demand? While it may seem too good to be true, you actually can train your brain to more readily enter that state of mental clarity, focus, and increased creativity. It doesn’t just apply to work either, you can enter this state while doing your hobbies, like artistic projects, working out, meditating, cooking, or whatever else you are passionate about. In fact, alpha waves are very important in the mind body connection, and training your brain to enter an ‘alpha state’ more easily can make you more aware of your body, improving things like yoga and meditation practices and other activities that involve both mental and physical work.
So, how can you enter this state more easily? Let's go over a few helpful techniques.
Go Move Outside!
Many studies have shown the benefits of exercising, especially outside. Outdoor yoga is a very popular activity shown to reduce stress, improve focus, and you guessed it, trigger the brain to enter an alpha dominant state. But, if you aren't your thing, don’t worry. Outdoor aerobic activity is linked to the same benefits. This could be a run, jog, bike ride, hike, or leisurely walk. Whatever fits best with you. And if none of those things call to you, you can experiment to find something that does! Swimming, climbing, skiing, any activity in which you are moving your body outside in the fresh air will have benefits.
You might be wondering, can’t I just sit outside with a book? While this is also great for your brain, and is something that would be helpful to incorporate into your week, it doesn’t have quite the same effect as exercising outside. When you exercise, your heart rate increases and more blood - and the critical nutrients it carries in it - are delivered to your brain. This helps with memory and attention, as well as releases endorphins, our bodies natural painkillers and mood elevators. As you can see, all these effects of outdoor exercise are related to the flow state, and you guessed it, alpha wave activity.
So why not just go to a gym? Being outside exposes your eyes to light that just isn’t the same as inside. You also get exposed to natural elements which can help regulate the body. Research has even shown that seeing the natural patterns called fractals that occur in nature increase alpha wave activity. Some examples of these fractals, or repeated patterns are the patterns in tree branches/bark/leaves, in clouds, rivers, and mountain ranges, and more. So while the gym is convenient, it's just not the same. Ideally, you could incorporate some outside activities into your fitness routine a few times a week.
Practice Mindfulness Meditation
I know, meditation is hard. I am not suggesting that you suddenly need to be able to sit cross legged under a tree for hours without latching onto any thoughts. It has been shown that mindful meditation is very effective in helping you bring awareness to your thoughts and feelings by slowing down the freight train that our thoughts can sometimes turn into. By practicing slowing down and focusing, we also teach our brain to produce alpha waves more intentionally and easily.
One study has shown that it takes 40 days of practicing this type of meditation to be able to get the brain to produce enough alpha waves for them to become the dominant brain wave frequency. So if you give this a try and don’t notice changes right away, don’t get discouraged. Changing the way your brain is hard work and takes time! If you stick with it it is worth it though. The same study showed that after the 40 days, people's sleep improved, they had lower overall stress, anxiety and depression symptoms declined, and they reported enhanced learning and memory.
There are great resources online for mindful meditation, and in the following blog we will write all about it. If you don’t know where to get started, start by practicing some of the other techniques we describe in this post. You can look around online for mindfulness meditation resources, or keep an eye out on our site for a dedicated post on it coming soon.
Pay Attention to Your Ques
Most of us have heard of Pavlovs dogs. This experiment essentially showed that our environment can shape our behavior. The example he used was dogs salivating when they heard a bell which they had been trained to associate with food.
While we love our furry friends, most of us don’t think we are much like dogs. But, just like them we are also subject to classical conditioning. Let's say you work in an office and have two direct managers who work alternating days. One is kind, nurturing, and supportive. The other is harsh and critical. On days that your kind manager is present, you are more likely to be relaxed, motivated to do well, present new ideas, ect. When your harsh boss is present, it is more likely you will be on edge, not speak up, and not be as effective in your work. This is an example of how your environment shapes your response.
Training your brain to be in an alpha dominant state follows the same idea. By paying attention to what environments, and specifically what it is about those environments, trigger you to be in a flow state you can help determine what your brain needs. When you identify what these triggers are, you can incorporate them into your routine to help your brain enter an alpha dominant state more easily.
And last but not least,
Train Your Brain!
While training your brain is a big undertaking, and multiple strategies should be used to reach the best results, we as humans have made some amazing discoveries and subsequent technologies. This is how neurofeedback came about. And why it is such an effective way to train your brain.
If you've been following our blog for a while, or have read through our website, you know a bit about neurofeedback. If you haven't read any of our other blogs or our website, I would encourage you to do so after finishing this article to get a better idea of just how neurofeedback works.
By doing neurofeedback, you are training your brain to work in more optimal patterns. This includes balancing your brain waves. When your brain is better able to regulate itself, it is better able to enter the states you want it to be in depending on your situation. This means that when you want to be highly conscious, solve hard problems, make decisions, ect your brain will be able to switch to beta dominant, but it will also be able to switch into theta or delta state when you are trying to rest and relax. The same goes for its ability to switch into an alpha state.
Your specific neurofeedback training protocol will help with this, but at Thrive we also utilize a special Alpha-Theta protocol. This is especially helpful for those of you specifically looking to increase your ability to enter flow states. Everybody has their own reason for wanting to do this, from increasing creativity in art or business, helping meditation or yoga practices, or whatever else your passion is. Training the brain to stay in the alpha-theta zones helps you enter and stay in those states outside of neurofeedback training as well.
If you are interested in trying out our alpha-theta protocol, reach out and we will get you set up. The great thing about this protocol is that you don't need to do a qEEG brainmap, so you can get started with training right away. All you have to do is set up an appointment by emailing, calling, or texting us to get scheduled.