It is common knowledge that the brain produces waves that can be studied and recorded. But only a hundred years ago, no one knew about brain waves. They were discovered by German researcher Hans Berger in 1925. Years earlier, during a military training exercise, he was thrown from his horse and almost killed when he landed in the path of a horse-drawn cannon. In that very same moment, his sister had a strong impression that Berger was in danger and insisted their father telegram him to see if he was all right. The incident made such an impression on Berger that he wrote: “It was a case of spontaneous telepathy in which at a time of mortal danger, and as I contemplated certain death, I transmitted my thoughts, while my sister, who was particularly close to me, acted as the receiver.” It was this experience that put him on the course of studying the brain and eventually led him to his discovery.
The brain waves discovered by Berger are produced by synchronized electrical pulses of millions of neurons in the brain, communicating with each other.
The dominant brain wave at any moment is determined by what we are doing, feeling, and thinking at that time. When we are awake, conscious, and alert, we are in a beta brain state. We spend most of our waking time in beta. When the slower alpha or theta brain waves are dominant, we are day-dreaming, relaxed, resting, or asleep. To stay in top mental shape where we think with clarity and enjoy creative insight, we should spend ten to fifteen minutes in the more relaxed alpha state every couple of hours. This is when the brain transitions from gathering information to organizing and making sense of it. This is when new neuronal connections are generated and when Aha! Moments take place.
One of the stark realities of our day is the vast amount of information available on an endless array of technological devices we carry with us everywhere we go. We have unlimited access to the flow of new and interesting information, and many of us want it all.
In his book Critical Path, futurist and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983) created the “Knowledge Doubling Curve,” hypothesizing that until 1900, human knowledge doubled about every century. By the end of World War II, knowledge was doubling every twenty-five years. Today, nanotechnology advances double every two years and clinical knowledge every eighteen months. On average, human knowledge is doubling every thirteen months. According to IBM, the build-out of the “internet of things” has led to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours! Most of this information finds its way to the Internet almost as quickly as it is discovered.
We are, quite literally, drowning in a sea of information – information that fragments our attention and keeps our brains in a high beta state. The consequences are startling.
We spend most of our waking hours in beta mode because that is when new information arrives to our conscious mind. The beta state is for information gathering. But the information doesn’t come in distinct, organized packets, nor is it put in the same place in the brain when it arrives. Once information appears, primarily through the senses, it is sent to various areas of the brain, waiting for organization.
Activities such as fishing, gardening, meditating, or taking a quiet stroll through the park or in nature provide the brain with the rest needed to organize the information it gathers in beta. Without this rest, the brain still functions, but it works harder and with less efficiency, like an automobile engine with half the spark plugs missing. Many of us have operated this way for so long, we think it’s normal and have no idea what it’s like to think with a fully charged brain.
Considerable research confirms that your brain works best when it regularly transitions from faster to slower brain states every few hours. But we live in a time where mental “down-shifting” takes place only when we’re on vacation or when we’re exhausted at the end of a long day. Interruptions and distractions from our tech tools tend to keep us in a high beta state.
Grinding it out and working harder is not the answer. Work smarter by making it a point to regularly relax your brain during a busy work day. Let go of your feelings of guilt. Taking an alpha break every couple of hours is the best way to generate bigger and better ideas for the big problems you’re trying to solve.
Learn more about brainwaves and mental distraction in BIG IDEAS: How to Unleash Your Creative Self and Have More Aha! Moments, by Craig Case and Jennifer Beckstrand. Available in three formats at Amazon, Kindle, and Audible.