In the book BIG IDEAS, we explain the main differences between the beta and alpha brain states.
• The beta brain state is the conscious working brain. It gathers information, makes decisions, deals with problems, pays focused attention, and gets things done. The beta brain state is fast, requires lots of oxygen and glucose, and tires after a few hours. Most people spend much of their awake time in beta, which is one of the reasons why they are exhausted at the end of the day, even if they’ve done nothing else other than sit at their desk all day. Cell phones, screens, computers, and TVs tend to keep our brains operating in beta.
• On the other hand, the alpha brain operates at a much slower speed. A person in alpha might be day-dreaming with their eyes closed, or listening to soft music, or on a casual walk around the block or in the woods. They’ve turned off their cell phone or tablet, and they’ve stopped thinking about yesterday’s mistakes or tomorrow’s concerns. They are in the here-and-now and tend to pay attention to the present moment.
The truth is, most of us spend the majority of our awake time in beta. Research suggests however, that we are more aware and more in tune with other people’s needs when we are in the slower, alpha brain state than we are when we are in beta.
In 1973, Princeton social-psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson published a fascinating study on human behavior. The study involved about 65 students who were preparing for the ministry. The students were told to prepare a three to five-minute talk on the Good Samaritan and then were scheduled to deliver their sermons at an appointed time and place at Princeton University to an audience made up of people who might hire them upon graduation.
Once they arrived, the students were randomly assigned to one of three groups, and were told the location of the speech they had prepared had been changed to another building across the campus.
The groups were:
1. The high-hurry group. “You’re late! You need to hurry.”
2. The medium-hurry group. The second group was put under moderate time pressure.
3. The low-hurry group: “You’ve got plenty of time. No need to rush.”
The behavior of those in the high-hurry group reflected the behavior of someone who had dominate beta waves in play (high focus, anxiety, stress and worry), whereas the behavior of the low-hurry group was more aligned with someone operating in alpha (strolling, relaxed, observant and aware).
Along the route between the buildings, was an actor slumped against a wall, head down, with his eyes closed. As each student passed, the actor coughed twice and groaned loudly, showing overt signs of extreme abdominal pain. As the students passed, a single metric was recorded: Would the student stop to check on the groaning person, or would they pass by, ignoring him?
So, who stopped and who didn’t? The data is telling:
• In the low-hurry group – those most likely to be in alpha state: 63% stopped and offered aid.
• In the high-hurry group – those most likely to be in beta state: Only 10% stopped and offered to help.
When asked, some of the students in the high-hurry group were completely oblivious of the actor and his pain. Not only did they literally have to step over the groaning person on the way to deliver their sermon, but some claimed that they didn’t even see him.
Only 10% of those in the high-hurry group stopped to help, whereas 63% of those in the low-hurry group stopped and asked if they could be of assistance. Our interpretation of this study is when someone is in an alpha brain state, she tends to be kinder, less anxious, more thoughtful, caring, patient, and more aware of other people’s needs. However, when she is operating in the faster beta brain state, the primary thing going on in her head is about her own needs at that moment, regardless of what’s happening “out there.” Those in the high-hurry group probably weren’t less caring, but at that moment in time, their focus was all about their need to get to the location to deliver their speech, everything else, including the person in need, was secondary.
Like it or not, most of us spend a high percentage of our waking lives in beta – thinking about our projects, our problems, and our own individual needs, rather than the needs of those we work and live with. It’s not that we are bad people, our brains are simply operating at a speed that keeps us focused on ourselves. Technology, such as smart phones and watches, have been designed to interrupt our thinking processes and to stimulate and agitate our brains, keeping us in beta, and when we’re there, we tend to be task-focused, and “me-oriented”.
Our recommendation is everyone should try to get to alpha at least for ten or fifteen minutes every couple of hours. If you do, not only will you enjoy higher creativity, a natural by-product of the alpha state, but you will likely be happier, feel less anxiety and stress, and will enjoy seeing with a wider vision – one that includes other people.