And does it matter? (YES!)
In the book BIG IDEAS, we explain how the human brain has evolved to operate at different rates of speed. Three of these speeds are called beta, alpha and gamma, and each one is essential to creativity and innovative thought.
You are in beta when you’re awake and aware, when you’re gathering information (like reading this blog), dealing with challenges, in active conversation, addressing problems, and making conscious decisions. Most of your waking hours are spent in beta. In beta, the brain is operating in high gear, like a car traveling down the freeway at 75 miles an hour.
Alpha is a slower, more relaxed brain state. It’s like the Sunday driver who plods along, traveling five miles per hour below the speed limit. When the brain is in alpha, conscious alertness is replaced by a day-dreaming state. In alpha, the mind wanders and visualization takes place. It is also the state where the brain does some of its best work—organizing and splicing the new information you collect in beta with the old information you already have. This organizing function is commonly called creativity. It only takes place when the brain slows down.
The conscious brain operates most efficiently when it regularly transitions from beta to alpha and back to beta every couple of hours. Ten or fifteen minutes in the alpha state for every couple of hours in beta state works wonders for your creativity.
Too much time spent in beta is exhausting. Like a high-performance race car that gets two miles to the gallon, the brain is a fuel hog, using 70 percent of the glucose and 25 percent of the oxygen you consume. When you go from one beta meeting to the next, to the next, without any alpha time in between, you deplete the brain of essential minerals that keep it functioning well. The brain responds to this mild abuse by making you feel tired, anxious, and mentally dull. As little as ten minutes in the slower alpha state every few hours allows the brain to recharge and operate more effectively and creatively. Close your eyes and listen to some quiet music. Put down your cell phone and take a walk around the block. You’ll be amazed at how much better you feel and how much more clearly you think.
The third brain state is gamma, which is an exceptionally rapid processing speed. When your brain is in gamma, it’s like you’re speeding down the freeway at 200 miles an hour. The gas pedal is floored, and the car is in high gear. Your brain goes full-throttle and functions as a single, well-honed unit. For most of us, gamma is a rarity, but when it happens, magic takes place. Your unconscious mind is about to give up one of its secrets in the form of an Aha! Moment, also known as an insight, an epiphany, inspiration or a BIG IDEA.
The gamma spike, as it’s called by neuroscientists, begins on the right side of the brain just above the right ear, goes to the back of the brain, travels to the front of the brain, and back and forth forty times a second. A gamma spike lasts a few seconds, and three-tenths of a second after it begins, you consciously experience an Aha! Moment. It might be an answer to an important question you’ve been struggling with or an insight into a problem, or it might be an idea for a more effective way to accomplish a task. The gamma spike tempers the emotional areas of the brain and triggers the release of a number of “feel good” neurotransmitters.
While most gamma spikes are simply good ideas that address individual concerns, some Aha! Moments are world-changing. Gutenberg’s idea for a movable type press and Einstein’s idea of special relativity both came as gamma spikes, and they changed the world.
Gamma spikes almost always occur when the brain is in alpha. They rarely happen when the brain is in beta. That’s why getting to alpha is so important. Alpha is when the BIG IDEAS show up.