In a nutshell:
- Elite athletes and creative people have a lot in common, as both sets of people enter specific mind states during moments of peak performance and insight.
- This can be analysed by measuring brain wave activity using a special device called an EEG.
- Different brain waves are associated with different states of mind.
- Alpha brain waves are produced by our brains when we are in a high performance state of mind.
- Things that have been shown to increase the overall alpha brain wave activity of our brains include: meditation, green tea, caffeine, neuro feedback and direct alpha stimulation.
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It’s all about alpha brain waves when it comes to creativity and peak performance. In an alpha state of mind, time is no longer measurable and you are consumed by tunnel vision. Your eyes dance from object to object in a rapid but deliberately smooth and intentional way, navigating through the consuming task at hand. For some, this state of mind is a rare event, while for others; this state of mind comes naturally. For almost all, this state of mind is trainable and attainable at will. Enter the science behind peak performance.
When faced with complex problems, creative people demonstrate bursts of alpha wave activity during moments of inspiration and insight. Less creative people do not show these big bursts of alpha. Similarly, the difference between elite and novice athletes can be seen in their brain activity. In the beginning, a novice athlete’s brain shows very little alpha brain wave activity. The more experience, the more alpha. Just before their best free throws, an elite basket baller will produce a huge burst of alpha brain waves. Just before their best drives and just before their best shots, golfers, marksmen and archers alike will show bursts of alpha brain wave activity.
You may or may not have heard of alpha brain waves before now. Those with a background in neuroscience or perhaps an interest in meditation may have. So let’s break it down and take it back to fundamentals and build the concept.
What are brainwaves? Brainwaves are a by-product of the normal electrical activity of the brain. We can measure them with an EEG machine (electroencephalography — just a fancy name for measuring brainwaves).
Electrical activity of our brain? The brain is made of millions of specialised cells called neurons, which are all interlinked in a beautifully complex way. Each neuron has many little arms (dendrites) which stick out and hold hands with their neighbours to tell each other what they’re up to. The communicate using an electrochemical message (part electrical and part chemical). Don’t worry about the exact mechanism involved here, as it isn’t important. These messages are being sent literally millions and millions of times per second and the result is a measurable amount of electrical activity which can be recorded by the EEG as a brainwave.
Why measure brainwaves? As we are in different states of mind, our brains emit different patterns of electrical activity. For example, when we are asleep, our brains are doing very different things to when we are awake, which shows up differently on an EEG machine. Here’s a quick breakdown of the different brain waves that have been measured as people are in different states of mind:
Gamma waves — Active. Formation of ideas, language, memory processing, various types of learning.
Beta waves — Awake. Where you are during most of your waking life.
Alpha waves — Focused. State of relaxed effortless alertness. The states of mind have been described as tranquil, peaceful, light, floating. Important for creativity and optimizing peak performance.
Theta waves — Light sleep. Extreme relaxation, deep meditation.
Delta waves — Deep dreamless sleep.
Brain waves are categorised according to the speed of their zig zaggyness. Basically, the more zig zags on the EEG, the faster your brain is going. So Gamma waves are like a child scribbling. Fast and erratic. While Delta brain waves are like a ship rocking at sea. Slooow. Makes sense right? Gamma — active. Delta — deep sleep. The rest are somewhere in between.
What are alpha waves? Alpha waves are the brain waves that occur when you are in a state of relaxed attentiveness. You are calm, present, alert and focused. Think of a track athlete poised and ready just before the gun fires. Imagine a slow motion boxing scene — boxers in the zone, the crowd muted, the lights faded and all the attention is locked firmly on the opponent. Think of an academic consuming information — intuition leading the way, shifting his focus from point to point with ease and flow. These are the states of mind that create alpha brain waves. They are creative and performance states of mind where we absorb ourselves in the moment, and indulge in the finer details. They are the places where we perform at our optimal and most innovative. It’s not to say we always want to be there, but those of us who want to spend greater amounts of time in an alpha state of mind can learn to do so at will.
How to Increase Alpha:
Meditation is the mecca of alpha. Meditation used to be an alternative practice, and was very much misunderstood by the western world. It is common practice for centuries in many religions, notably Buddhism, as well as in various ancient martial arts such as Tai Chi. Today, the practice of meditation is being incorporated into the lives of pretty much every elite performer from athletes to high performing business executives. Check out this article of CEO’s and directors who swear by meditation, including the CEO of Newscorp and the former director of Google. Meditation will increase your alpha brain waves during a session, but also give you the mental tools to re-enter that state of mind at will. The more you practice, the better you will become at it, and the more automatic, natural and easy it will be. When you stop practicing, it becomes more difficult again. This is why many successful people schedule meditation with just as much importance as going to the gym or eating right. In fact, it’s like going to the gym for the brain. By meditating more, you improve your ability to create those focused states of mind at will.
A great way to get into meditation straight away is the headspace app. I’ve been meditating for some years and now use this app to keep my practice regular. There is also a specific section on focus meditation. Another way to get into meditation is to go on a meditation retreat. There are many of these available all over the world. I would recommend a 3 day vipassana style meditation retreat. This is like a weekend boot camp for your brain to kick-start a new habit.
Green tea is a great way to boost alpha waves when you need it. There has been a lot of research into the constituents of green tea that actually increase your alpha brain waves. Interestingly, a single amino acid called L-theanine has been extracted and shown to be the major contributor to this effect. Green tea on its own contains 50–100mg L-theanine. I personally prefer matcha green tea, which is a Japanese green tea powder that has over 100x the antioxidant content of regular green tea.
Neuro-feedback involves monitoring brain waves in real time and giving the user feedback when the brain gets turbulent. Neuro-optimal have a brain training product which uses music as the main form of feedback. Basically, the user listens to music while their brain waves are simultaneously monitored. If the brain deviates away from alpha states, the music is briefly interrupted. The brain hates this and thus automatically learns to enter alpha states of mind. I’ve used this product many times and have explored some very interesting mental states through the use of it. If you’re interested in trying this, I would first recommend finding a nearby clinic before dropping the $5000 on the gear.
Direct alpha stimulation involves applying a small electric pulse across the patients head. It has been used as a treatment modality for depression, insomnia, anxiety and chronic pain since the 1960’s and is an FDA approved treatment. It increases alpha brain wave activity through direct stimulation. I have yet to try this, so I can’t offer any personal advice or reviews, but you can find out more here.