What Are Alpha Brain Waves?

Increasing alpha waves may reduce depression

A man having an EEG to measure brain wave activity.

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Alpha brain waves represent one pattern of electrical activity produced by the brain. The brain is made up of millions of neurons that use electrical signals to transmit information. 

When groups of neurons fire together in a certain way to send signals to other groups of neurons, the resulting patterns are known as brain waves. These electrical patterns are associated with different types of activity in the brain as well as different states of consciousness.

Alpha waves usually occur when you are engaged in activities such as daydreaming, meditating, or practicing mindfulness. Research suggests that this type of brain wave may play a role in reducing symptoms of depression and improving creativity.

Identifying Alpha Waves

There are five different types of brain waves. Brain waves are measured by a tool known as an electroencephalogram (EEG). The picture that the tool creates portrays this electrical activity in a way that looks like waves.

An EEG looks at the frequency of these waves, or the cycles of activity per second. Some of these waves are faster and some are slower—alpha waves are somewhere in the middle.

Types of Brain Waves

The five types of brain waves and their associated frequencies are: 

  • Delta waves, which are between 0.5 and 4 hertz (Hz), occur during deep states of dreamless sleep.
  • Theta waves, which are between 4 and 8 Hz, occur during light sleep or deep relaxation.
  • Alpha waves, which measure between 8 and 12 Hz, occur when people feel relaxed and when the brain is in an idle state without concentrating on anything.
  • Beta waves, which measure between 12 and 30 Hz, are the waves that occur during most conscious, waking states. It is a fast activity that signals attentiveness and alertness. 
  • Gamma waves, which measure between 25 and 100 Hz, are the fastest wavelength brain waves that are linked to activities such as learning, problem-solving, and information processing.

What They Do

When the brain produces alpha waves, it is because it is in a state that is relaxed and restful. This is why people experience these waves when they are doing stress-relieving activities such as meditating.

How does brain activity look on an EEG when alpha wave activity is prominent? When the brain displays this type of EEG wave, it often means that a person is focused on a specific thought and not paying attention to unwanted distractions. They tend to ignore sensory activity and are in a relaxed state.

There is some evidence that suggests finding ways to boost these alpha waves may have a number of benefits. Some of the positive effects of boosting alpha waves include lowering stress, reducing anxiety, decreasing depression, and improving creative thinking.

Impact of Alpha Waves

Interest in the use of alpha waves grew after the development of biofeedback, a technique that involves using feedback from a tool that measures brain activity to learn how to consciously create alpha waves. Research has shown that alpha waves may have a number of positive benefits, which might include the following: 

Reduced Depression

A study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry found that using a technique called transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) to induce alpha wave activity reduced depressive symptoms in people with major depressive disorder.

While the study’s sample size was small, the results show the therapeutic potential of increasing alpha waves to combat depression.

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Greater Creativity

One 2015 study found that alpha wave activity was associated with creativity. This effect, they found, could be induced using non-invasive brain stimulation. While such effects may be useful for boosting creative thought, it also offers promise for helping reduce depression.

People with depressive symptoms often get stuck in repetitive patterns of thinking. Finding ways to break out of those destructive patterns may help reduce symptoms of depression.

Reducing Anxiety

Alpha waves are linked to more relaxed, restful mental states, which is why researchers also believe that they may be helpful for lowering anxiety and stress. One study found that alpha brain wave neurofeedback training helped participants reduce their anxiety levels.

Another study suggested that increasing both alpha and theta activity in the brain’s occipital lobes helped decrease anxiety and improve functioning in those with generalized anxiety disorder.

Tips for Increasing Alpha Waves

Biofeedback training is one way to learn how to consciously induce alpha waves. While researchers continue to explore this as a therapeutic treatment for depression and anxiety, there are things that you can do to help improve your ability to experience this type of brain wave. Increase alpha wave activity by:

  • Meditating: Meditation has a number of health benefits and has been linked to increased alpha waves.
  • Deep breathing: Deep breathing can be an effective way to combat feelings of anxiety. Research also suggests that it may help boost alpha activity in key areas of the brain.
  • Practicing mindfulness: Studies have shown that mindfulness training can lead to increased alpha wave activity, and some research has suggested that this practice may help people who are experiencing chronic pain, anxiety, or depression.
  • Yoga: The relaxed state associated with alpha waves may increase when performing yoga and some research has suggested that regular yoga practice may enhance alpha activity in the brain.
  • Aerobics: Some researchers suggest that aerobic exercise can also increase alpha wave activity.

While alpha waves have promise for reducing the symptoms of anxiety and depression, they can also cause problems if they happen when they are not supposed to. For example, while alpha waves are often present right before you fall asleep, they should not happen while you are asleep. When alpha waves do occur during sleep, they can contribute to sleep disorders.

The brain normally produces delta waves during deep sleep. If alpha waves occur instead, it disrupts sleep and leaves people feeling tired the following day.

A Word From Verywell

Alpha waves play an important role in brain activity and research suggests that they may be beneficial for reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Neurofeedback is one approach that can allow you to induce these brain waves to a certain extent.

Relaxation techniques such as meditation and mindfulness may also help. By boosting your alpha waves, you might also experience improved mood, decreased depression and anxiety, and a greater sense of calm.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."