It is important to know that all humans display five different types of electrical patterns or “brain waves” across the cortex. The brain waves can be observed with an EEG (or an “electroencephalograph”) – a tool that allows researchers to note brain wave patterns. Each brain wave has a purpose and helps serve us in optimal mental functioning.

Our brain’s ability to become flexible and/or transition through various brain wave frequencies plays a large role in how successful we are at managing stress, focusing on tasks, and getting a good night’s sleep. If one of the five types of brain waves is either overproduced and/or under produced in our brain, it can cause problems. For this reason, it is important to understand that there is no single brain wave that is “better” or more “optimal” than the others.

Each serves a purpose to help us cope with various situations – whether it is to help us process and learn new information or help us calm down after a long stressful day. The five brain waves in order of highest frequency to lowest are as follows: gamma, beta, alpha, theta, and delta.

5 Brain Waves: Frequencies To Understand

Before I get into specifics, it is important to realize that when I refer to a certain brain wave, I am implying that a particular brain wave is “dominant.” Throughout the day in your waking state, your EEG will display all 5 types of brain waves at the same time.  However, one particular brain wave will be dominant depending on the state of consciousness that you are in.

For example, if you are awake, but have really bad ADHD, you may have more slow wave (alpha and/or theta) activity than beta waves. During sleep usually there are combinations of the slower frequencies, but even gamma has been found to be involved in rapid-eye movement (REM).  Below is a brief description of each brainwave state, but a more in-depth understanding can be derived from the book “Getting Started with Neurofeedback.”

Gamma Waves

These are involved in higher processing tasks as well as cognitive functioning. Gamma waves are important for learning, memory and information processing. It is thought that the 40 Hz gamma wave is important for the binding of our senses in regards to perception and are involved in learning new material. It has been found that individuals who are mentally challenged and have learning disabilities tend to have lower gamma activity than average.

Frequency range: 40 Hz to 100 Hz (Highest)
Too much: Anxiety, high arousal, stress
Too little: ADHD, depression, learning disabilities
Optimal: Binding senses, cognition, information processing, learning, perception, REM sleep
Increase gamma waves: Meditation

Beta Waves

These are known as high frequency low amplitude brain waves that are commonly observed while we are awake. They are involved in conscious thought, logical thinking, and tend to have a stimulating affect. Having the right amount of beta waves allows us to focus and complete school or work-based tasks easily. Having too much beta may lead to us experiencing excessive stress and/or anxiety. The higher beta frequencies are associated with high levels of arousal. When you drink caffeine or have another stimulant, your beta activity will naturally increase. Think of these as being very fast brain waves that most people exhibit throughout the day in order to complete conscious tasks such as: critical thinking, writing, reading, and socialization.
Frequency range: 12 Hz to 40 Hz (High)
Too much: Adrenaline, anxiety, high arousal, inability to relax, stress
Too little: ADHD, daydreaming, depression, poor cognition
Optimal: Conscious focus, memory, problem solving
Increase beta waves: Coffee, energy drinks, various stimulants

Alpha Waves

This frequency range bridges the gap between our conscious thinking and subconscious mind. In other words, alpha is the frequency range between beta and theta. It helps us calm down when necessary and promotes feelings of deep relaxation. If we become stressed, a phenomenon called “alpha blocking” may occur which involves excessive beta activity and very little alpha. Essentially the beta waves “block” out the production of alpha because we become too aroused.

Frequency range: 8 Hz to 12 Hz (Moderate)
Too much: Daydreaming, inability to focus, too relaxed
Too little: Anxiety, high stress, insomnia, OCD
Optimal: Relaxation
Increase alpha waves: Alcohol, marijuana, relaxants, some antidepressants

Theta Waves

This particular frequency range is involved in daydreaming and sleep. Theta waves are connected to us experiencing and feeling deep and raw emotions. Too much theta activity may make people prone to bouts of depression and may make them “highly suggestible” based on the fact that they are in a deeply relaxed, semi-hypnotic state. Theta has its benefits of helping improve our intuition, creativity, and makes us feel more natural. It is also involved in restorative sleep. As long as theta isn’t produced in excess during our waking hours, it is a very helpful brain wave range.

Frequency range: 4 Hz to 8 Hz (Slow)
Too much: ADHD, depression, hyperactivity, impulsivity, inattentiveness
Too little: Anxiety, poor emotional awareness, stress
Optimal: Creativity, emotional connection, intuition, relaxation
Increase theta waves: Depressants

Delta Waves

These are the slowest recorded brain waves in human beings. They are found most often in infants as well as young children. As we age, we tend to produce less delta even during deep sleep. They are associated with the deepest levels of relaxation and restorative, healing sleep. They have also been found to be involved in unconscious bodily functions such as regulating heart beat and digestion. Adequate production of delta waves helps us feel completely rejuvenated after we wake up from a good night’s sleep. If there is abnormal delta activity, an individual may experience learning disabilities or have difficulties maintaining conscious awareness (such as in cases of brain injuries).

Frequency range: 0 Hz to 4 Hz (Slowest)
Too much: Brain injuries, learning problems, inability to think, severe ADHD
Too little: Inability to rejuvenate body, inability to revitalize the brain, poor sleep
Optimal: Immune system, natural healing, restorative / deep sleep
Increase delta waves: Depressants, sleep