By Elissa Crocker, RN
Over the years, imaginary lines have been drawn between apparently incompatible subjects.
In nature, oil and water don’t mix. In government, money and power are said to corrupt. And for the sake of social harmony, a well-known proverb questions the wisdom of discussing religion and politics at a dinner party.
Likewise, the field of medicine has had its share of antagonistic factions. From the supposed incongruity of traditional medicine with alternative therapies, to the belief that the science of tissue engineering and ethics are mutually exclusive, passionate debate rages on either side. Throw religion or politics into the mix, and the argument only escalates.
And so it is in the realm of the mind/body and its connection to consciousness. Since early Greek philosophers first delved into the nature of the mysterious link between the material and the immaterial, controversies have raged. Any subject that flirts with the subject of the soul and spirit--typically the purview of theologians, not neuro-physiologists and scientists and certainly not loosely credentialed neuro-therapists--is destined to be viewed with raised eyebrows and a hefty dose of skepticism.
But scientists, often like the turtle in another familiar proverb, plod ahead. Seeking to know, they answer some questions, while raising others.
Clearly, scientific facts can be understood. However, conclusions drawn from them and their applications to an individual’s life are just that: individual.
It is an undisputed fact that the brain is an electrochemical organ, its functions influenced and dictated by a number of chemicals at work within a complex neurological structure. As it does so, electrical energy is generated in brain waves that can be measured and easily qualified by a devise known as an electro-encephalograph (EEG).
By placing electrodes on the scalp in designated areas, these brain waves are picked up by a galvanometer and recorded on chart paper moving underneath moveable pens. These tracings can then be studied by physicians and scientists.
While EEG patterns are the result of electro-neurological activity, this activity is not mind-consciousness or awareness of the “I”--one’s self and surroundings. Consciousness itself requires a complex interaction between many areas of the brain, and no research has been able to localize higher levels of the mind--intuition, insight, creativity, understanding, reasoning, will, “soul or spirit”--within brain tissue.
Therefore, EEG measurements are only an indirect means of assessing the mind-consciousness interface with the biological structures of the brain. However, research has revealed four identifiable EEG/brainwave patterns that are associated with specific states of mind-consciousness, or states of awareness.
With peaks similar to those seen in water waves, brainwaves are categorized by the number of times the peak appears in one second, or cycles per second. Their frequency ranges from the most active to the least active and are characteristic of corresponding levels of consciousness.
The first, most active brainwave is beta. Ranging from about 14 to 40 cycles per second, it characterizes an aroused, strongly-engaged brain. It is the normal thinking state, with active external awareness and thought processes, and allows an individual to function normally and take an active role in life. When functioning at their best, beta waves are associated with logical thinking and concrete problem solving. However, they can vary from a state of calmness to one of extreme panic or fright.
The next in order of frequency is alpha and occurs at about nine to 14 cycles per second. While beta represents an alert arousal, alpha is a relaxed, detached arousal. The brainwave present in imagination--whether daydreaming, visualization or fantasizing--alpha waves also characterize a receptive and fertile mind.
The first brain wave to be discovered and later to be consciously controlled, alpha waves have been studied the most, paving the way for the practice of biofeedback. But because these waves can be easily produced--after all, anyone can daydream--alpha waves have been alternately trashed and treasured.
In her book, “The High Performance Mind,” Anna Wise states, “The most common problem with alpha brainwaves is not having enough of them in conjunction with other brainwaves.”
She goes on to say, “Alpha provides the bridge between the conscious and subconscious mind ... When alpha is missing, the link to the subconscious is broken.”
The next level of brainwave is theta. Ranging from four to eight cycles per second, these waves are seen in dream sleep, those 90 minute cycles in the sleep state in which dreams and REM--rapid eye movement--occur. Theta waves are associated with creativity and the free flow of ideas, usually without censorship or guilt.
Surprisingly, theta waves are also present when mentally-awake state; however this state is also connected with daydreaming and the individual completely detaches from reality. Theta waves can occur in the brains of those whose bodies are engaged physically, such as in runners and bicycle riders, yet can also occur when the body is at rest, such as in meditation and deep prayer. Drivers on a familiar freeway route who suddenly “wake up” to discover the past few miles are a complete blank have experienced a mental state predominated by theta brainwaves.
In the book, “A Symphony in the Brain: The Evolution of the New Brain Wave Biofeedback,” Jim Robbins states that the dreamy state of theta, “is difficult to study, because theta waves are hard to sustain without falling asleep.”
Robbins goes on to state, “ Theta is apparently where childhood memories are “stored,” and people who tap into this area often experience the emergence of long buried events from the past.”
Of interest, theta waves are the brain waves primarily produced in young children under the age of five.
In Wise’s opinion, “Theta waves can be thought of the subconscious, that part of our minds that forms a layer between the conscious and the unconscious. They hold a profusion of memories, sensations and emotions.”
She also states that theta waves are particularly strong in so-called “peak experiences” and spiritual insight. A major goal of her therapy and other so-called altered states or higher states of consciousness is to access theta wave brain states via alpha bridges found through meditation, in order to consciously bring them into beta state applications.
The fourth brainwave is delta. These slow waves, about one-half to four cycles per second, occur in the unconscious mind in deep sleep. Delta waves provide restorative sleep, but may also be present in a waking state in combination with other waves.
Wise states, “I like to think of delta as a kind of radar that seeks out and receives information at an instinctive level. People with ...delta waves are often intuitive ... and have learned to trust their sixth sense, because it is so often correct.”
She states delta waves create strong empathy and are often present in a high level in those in the helping professions.
A neuro-therapist, Wise seeks to aid others primarily by using meditation and biofeedback to achieve what she calls the “awakened mind,” a state where the four brainwaves are balanced and working at optimum levels. She believes that in brainwave states, information can be passed between the conscious and the unconscious mind, and that those who discover their “awakened mind” can be healed from psychological and physical illness, enter creative states at will, and improve interpersonal and business relationships.
Hocus-pocus? Since its introduction in the 60s, the technique of using brainwaves to facilitate biofeedback has been used to treat numerous physical and psychological disorders.
According to Robbins, the field of neurofeedback is currently booming. With more than 1,500 neurologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, physicians, and counselors around the world, the technique is being used to treat everything from headaches to circulatory disorders.
He states, “Neurofeedback is not being used solely as a tool for attention deficit disorder and epilepsy and addictions. Many in the field believe the technique has a far broader--in fact, an unbelievably broad--application.”
He goes on to include autism, closed head injury, stroke, and manic depression among the many disorders that have the potential to be treated and improved through biofeedback. He also cites mental fitness training, or “peak performance” as a growing use of the technique by athletes, executives, performers, and others who seek to enhance mental or physical acuity.
Will the technology of EEG using brainwaves and neurofeedback prove to be a major contributor to wellness in the new millennium? Can latent power and energy be accessed through a conscious manipulation of the mind/body connection? And if so, can it be an acquired skill and an option for anyone?
It remains to be seen. In the meantime, scientists will plod on, seeking to separate wheat from chaff, while individuals remain free to draw their own conclusions.