You’re used to boosting energy and brainpower with caffeine. Or using herbs like chamomile to wind down after a stressful day at work. But what if you could completely change your mental and physical state by manipulating your brainwaves —100% caffeine-free?
While your brain remains the most complex and hardest-to-study organ in your body, researchers are getting closer to figuring out how to induce specific brain states at will.
In fact, there’s plenty that you can do today from the comfort of your living room to reduce stress or promote better concentration and energy with a little bit of mind control.
What Are Brainwaves and How Do We Measure Them?
Brainwaves are rhythmic or repetitive electrical impulses driven by interactions between neurons, the cells responsible for receiving sensory input from the world around you. Brainwaves occur at various frequencies, some fast and focused, others slow and relaxed, all of them measured in cycles per second or Hertz (Hz).
Doctors and researchers can read brainwaves using an EEG or electroencephalography, which — you guessed it — show up as different shapes of waves on the screens.
There are five main types of brainwaves, all associated with different activities and moods. And it turns out that you may be able to manipulate your brainwaves at will, creating a more focused flow state or shifting into a mental state of total relaxation. But, first, let’s explore the different types of brainwaves and the mental-emotional state behind each one.
Delta Brainwaves (0.1 to 3.5 Hz)
Delta brainwaves are the lowest and slowest frequencies recorded in humans, ranging from 0.1 to 3.5 Hz. Delta waves are associated with restorative, dreamless, non-REM sleep and the deepest levels of relaxation.
While delta waves only show up in healthy adults during deep sleep, this is the predominant frequency in infants up to one year old, even while awake. Delta wave activity then declines over time, with a 25% drop during slow-wave sleep in adolescence and another significant overall drop in your 40s.https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/12/061207160458.htmhttps://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18657881/
Without high delta activity, you may not get the deep, restorative rest your brain and body need to recover, store information, and operate on all cylinders when you’re awake.
There are some “abnormal” instances of high deltahttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4973024/ observed in people with attention deficit disorder (ADD), specifically when they’re trying to focus. You can also spot high delta in people with brain injurieshttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4973024/ and learning disabilities.
Theta Brainwaves (3.5-8 Hz)
Theta activity is still slow but not nearly as slow as delta waves. At 3.5 to about 8 Hz, theta brainwaves occur most often when you’re asleep or suspended in that place between being asleep and awake.
A theta state is associated with REM sleep and dreaming, and it’s possible to detect theta brainwaves while in deep states of relaxation or meditation. Interestingly, researchers also detect theta waves in creative flow states, which can feel like you’re getting lost in a particular task like running, painting, or even a more intellectually-driven task like writing.
Theta waves are essential for learning, memory, creativity, and intuition. So, physiologically, it’s good for you to spend some time in theta state for mind-body integration, memory, and learning retention.
Children up to about 13 years old are in theta state quite a bit, even when they’re wide awake, but that’s very rare in adults. This might account for children’s active and often wild imaginations and creativity.
Alpha Brainwaves (9-12 Hz)
Alpha waves are between 9 and 12 Hz, peaking around 10 Hz for most people. Healthy alpha activity promotes a calm, relaxed mood — not a brain state you’d want for complex problem-solving. Think of alpha like a wakeful rest, where you can think but you’re not particularly focused on anything.
Alpha brainwaves are associated with increased creativity,https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0010945215001033?via%3Dihub creative problem solving, and a decrease in depressive and anxious thoughts.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23341412/
One study suggests that increasing both alpha and theta activity in the brain’s occipital lobes via neurofeedback help decrease anxiety and improve overall function in people with generalized anxiety disorderhttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4741268/
Beta Brainwaves (13-38 Hz)
Beta brainwaves are the predominant waking brain state for most modern adults — especially when you’re engaged in your work, listening, problem-solving, or processing information. In beta, you can be relaxed, but you’re focused and alert.
While beta brainwaves from 13 to almost 40 Hz, higher frequencies can induce anxiety for some people.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5804435/
In fact, you can divide beta brainwaves into the following three subtypes:
- Low beta: These range from about 13 to 15 Hz and are present when you’re thinking.
- Beta waves: From 15-22 Hz, you’re likely performing a mental activity or otherwise focusing on something.
- High beta: These range from about 22-38 Hz. and occur when you’re more agitated, excited, or anxious. These are also present when you’re experiencing something new or engaging in complex thoughts or problem-solving.
The benefits of beta waves range from increased concentration and focus to motivation, enhancement of reading and language, and a decrease in ADD and ADHD symptoms.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5804435/
Gamma Brainwaves (38-44 Hz)
For even more intense levels of processing, concentration, and learning, you’ve got gamma brainwaves. Usually measured between 30 and 44 Hz, this is the only frequency group found in every part of the brain and is triggered when the brain needs to process information from different areas of the brain at the same time.
Gamma brain wave benefits include higher IQ, better memory, faster problem-solving, deeper clarity, and even compassion and happiness. Physiologically, gamma and theta work together to increase overall cognitive function.
Low gamma activity has been linked with impaired mental processing, limited memory, and learning difficulties. While the evidence is still lacking, researchers believe that brain training to induce gamma brainwaves could increase intelligence.
How to Activate Your Brainwaves On Command
So, how can you manipulate your brainwaves on command? While the science is still young, there are a few ways you might be able to induce different brain states at will.
How to Increase Delta Brainwaves
Delta waves induce deep sleep and relaxation, so this might be the route to take if you find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep.
Avoid Drugs and Alcohol
When it comes to delta waves, the most important tip might be what not to do. Some drugs and alcohol have been shown to inhibit delta waves, which can compromise deep sleep and the recovery that comes with ithttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3987847/
Try a Ketogenic Diet
A very low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet might help induce delta waves. In a small study on 14 healthy men without insomnia, the percentage of slow wave sleep (the most restorative kind of sleep) significantly increased after a short time in ketosis.https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/147683008X301540
Binaural beats are a type of sound therapy that work by matching your brainwaves with the frequency of an external stimulus, like pulsing sound or light. In theory, this can train your brainwaves to a specific desired frequency. For instance, you want to induce beta waves for a challenging mental task, delta waves to induce sleep, or theta for a deep, trance-like meditation.
Binaural beats can induce delta, so you’ll want to listen to these as you’re falling asleep, not while driving or operating heavy machinery.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4428073/
You can look up “theta binaural beats” on YouTube or listen to binaural beats tracks specific to delta brainwaves.
For best results, use noise-canceling headphones if you have them. The second best option would be earbuds. Some binaural beats tracks use an imperceptible mismatch in beats between your left and right ear to help induce a specific brain wave.
Neurofeedback (sometimes called biofeedback) is a technique that involves measuring brain activity, then “feeding” that information back to you via visuals or sound to reinforce certain patterns or mental states.
Research shows that neurofeedback may have a number of positive benefits, including:
- Reduced symptoms of depressionhttps://www.nature.com/articles/s41398-019-0439-0
- Lowered anxietyhttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK531603/
- Enhanced memory and focushttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6140992/https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23820311/
- Decreased impulsivityhttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5299210/#:~:text=If%20effective%2C%20neurofeedback%20could%20be,to%20criminal%20behavior%20%5B32%5D
- Better mental clarity
- More restful sleep
- Improved mood
Neurofeedback is a growing science, and there are several protocols to help stimulate every brainwave state. Although alpha, beta, theta, and alpha-theta protocols are the most common, you can use neurofeedback to boost delta.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5299210/#:~:text=If%20effective%2C%20neurofeedback%20could%20be,to%20criminal%20behavior%20%5B32%5D
Inducing delta with neurofeedback is usually used to alleviate headaches, help with traumatic brain injuries and learning disorders, and help improve sleep.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4892319/
How to Increase Theta Brainwaves
Theta waves are essential for mind-body integration, memory, and learning retention. Theta waves are also associated with REM sleep and dreaming, but you can always tap into theta for projects that require a more creative flow state. And since they’re associated with a more relaxed state, you can also use a theta state to relax or calm anxious thoughts and feelings.
Binaural beats are one of the easiest ways to tap into theta. You can look up “theta binaural beats” on YouTube or download a specialized app. Use these when you’re falling asleep for more vivid dreams, to tap into your subconscious mind, or when you want to tap into creativity and flow.
Simple mindfulness meditation and breath-focused meditations are perfect for slowing your thoughts and inducing a theta state.https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/acm.2009.0113
For example, a small 2009 study found that a simple 20-minute meditation practice stimulated both theta and alpha brainwaves more than regular relaxation.https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/acm.2009.0113
Hypnosis is a trance-like mental state usually induced by a recorded meditation or a trained hypnotherapist. Many people might describe hypnosis as a more sleep-like state, but hypnosis actually induced a state of focused attention and vivid imagination. So, while you may feel a bit sleepy, you’re actually in a state of heightened awareness.
The best brain wave states for hypnosis are theta and alpha, but theta is considered an ideal brain state to tap into the subconscious mind for therapeutic work. Here, you’ll be deeply relaxed, suggestible, and aware of your surroundings, but not distracted by them.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4361031/
This isn’t the same thing as stage hypnosis, where the goal is entertainment and comedy.
Neurofeedback to induce theta brainwaves is beneficial for calming and relaxing the nervous system. It’s possible to induce a more theta state with neurofeedback, but the most popular protocols promote an alpha-theta state. You can use this for stress reduction, to help with symptoms of depression, addiction, and anxiety, and to induce creativity and relaxation.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15820636/https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4892319/
How to Increase Alpha Brainwaves
If you’re feeling a bit low energy or need a creative boost, alpha brainwaves are the way to go. Alpha brainwaves can wake up your creativity and problem-solving, and may help decrease symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15820636/
Yoga runs the gamut from high-powered flows that get your endorphins flowing to ultra-slow asanas meant for active rest and rejuvenation. They all have in common a combination of physical poses, synchronized breathing, and meditative properties, all of which help stimulate alpha brainwaves.
In a small study on healthy university students, alpha increased 57.85% after a 21-day daily yoga practice.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3890927/
A regular meditation practice has been shown to increase alpha waves and reduce beta, perfect if you’re looking to wind down after a stimulating day at work. Deep breathing, visualizations, and other mindfulness meditation techniques also boost alpha.https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/acm.2009.0113https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1697747/
Exercise, particularly intense aerobic exercise, can increase alpha waves. A study comparing steady-state exercise to exhaustive exercise on two separate days found that alpha was significantly higher post-exercise in subjects who performed the harder workouts.https://www.hindawi.com/journals/np/2015/717312/
Theanine is an amino acid famous for giving you a sense of calm yet alert relaxation about 30-40 minutes after oral use. This is because theanine stimulates the production of alpha waves directly, inducing a state of deep relaxation along with mental alertness.https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/pdf/10.1089/10762800151125092#:~:text=Studies%20consistently%20support%20the%20conclusion,brain%20within%2030%E2%80%9340%20minutes
It also seems to play a role in the formation of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps you relax and deepens sleep. You can find theanine in most green and black teas, or you can take it in pill form.
Binaural beats may increase alpha brain states. Use these to induce a more relaxed yet focused state or to help with creativity.
Neurofeedback is another tool that can help enhance every brain wave state. A 2014 study suggests that neurofeedback using both theta and alpha stimulation helped people with generalized anxiety disorder. More alpha increased the participants’ sense of calm and reduced feelings of fearhttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4741268/ and anxiety.
How to Increase Beta Brainwaves
Beta waves are associated with greater focus and may help enhance learning and language skills. EEG scans also show little to no beta activity in the brains of people with severe ADD and ADHD, suggesting that increasing beta can help with concentration.
There aren’t as many recommendations for how to stimulate beta brainwaves at will because most of us are in a beta state during waking hours. And too much beta can zap your energy and reduce creativity and emotional awareness.
Binaural beats and other specialized sound therapies might be your best bet to increasing beta naturally. Binaural beats in the lower beta frequencies (14 to 30 Hz) have been linked with better concentration, problem solving, higher alertness, and better memory.https://associationofanaesthetists-publications.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2044.2005.04287.x
Beta training during neurofeedback is used to improve focus and attention, improve reading ability, and increase mental performance. It’s also been shown to improve cognitive processing and reduce over-thinking.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4892319/
Beta waves in the 12-15 Hz. may even reduce anxiety, anger, and stress.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14706480/
Caffeine is a potent drug that can increase focus and energy, among many other benefits and risks (anxiety and sleep issues being some of the latter). And caffeine has a quick and powerful influence on the brain as well, including increases in beta waves and decreases in slower brain wave activity.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21432699/https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J184v07n02_07
How to Increase Gamma Brainwaves
If beta waves increase focus and concentration, gamma waves are for next-level problem-solving. In gamma, you’re highly alert and focused. In fact, you’ve achieved peak concentration. If you have trouble concentrating or have a big project due, you might want to try some of these gamma-stimulating techniques. However, like beta brainwaves, too much gamma might lead to burnout.
Some research shows that different types of meditation boost gamma activity in the brain compared to a control group.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5261734/
While higher theta and alpha show up in some parts of the brain, other areas light up with gamma. There’s also evidence that gamma during meditation increases as you get more serious about your meditation practice.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25562827/
Eat More Pistachios
Nuts are nutrient-dense and potent sources of antioxidants — compounds that help fight free radicals and inflammation in the body. But a 2018 study suggests that nuts may also alter your brain state. Research from Loma Linda University Health found that regular nut consumption strengthens brain gamma wave frequencies, particularly pistachios.https://faseb.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1096/fasebj.31.1_supplement.636.24
Binaural beats are back again. In one study, researchers developed experiments that measured working memory and changes in emotional state. Participants listened to binaural beats at 40 Hz to stimulate gamma for 30 minutes, but the data suggest that the frontal, temporal, and central regions of the brain were activated within the first 15 minutes.
The results suggest that word recall increased after listening to the stimulus and, according to the Brunel Mood Scale, mood changes were also consistent with an increase in gamma brainwaves.
And once more, neurofeedback shows promise for stimulating gamma waves. Gamma training may be successful in promoting cognition, mental sharpness, and problem-solving. Studies suggest that neurofeedback can also organize the brain, improve short-term memory, and even reduce migraines.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16385423/
Program Your Brainwaves on Command
While the science is still new, there’s some promising evidence that you can activate and change your brain state on command. And most of these techniques are free and possible to perform from home.
Whether you want to wind down and get a good night’s sleep or prepare your brain for a demanding mental task, you can manipulate your brain accordingly.