How do brain waves work?


Quick Answer

Brain waves are a combination of electrical signals in the brain that indicate the status or activity of the brain. The brain is composed of billions of nerve cells, called neurons, that communicate with each other via electrical signals. Sophisticated imaging tests, such as the EEG, measure electrical activity across areas of the scalp, enabling medical technicians to see a visual depiction of a brain wave.

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Full Answer

Early researchers identified four stages of brain activity: delta, theta, alpha and beta, in order of increasing cycles per second (Hertz). These states correspond with sleep, deep relaxation, awake and active thought. Since then, researchers have identified other brain-wave patterns including Sensory Motor Rhythm (SMR), which seems to link brain and bodily functions, and Gamma brain waves, which appear when a subject is involved in intense mental activity.

Brain waves figure in a therapy called neurofeedback that attempts to help patients control their thoughts and emotions, reports Dr. Karen Shue of Brain and Health. Also called biofeedback, this technique claims to harness brain-wave activity to relieve anxiety and stress, to help alleviate insomnia, or to cope with pain or depression. Other psychologists say the success of biofeedback largely depends on the patient's belief that the technique will be helpful, states Dr. Christian Jarrett in Psychology Today.

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