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Mind Your Theta: Achieving Theta Activity with Meditation

What can you do on your own to improve your chance of better brain health?

Key points

  • Theta waveforms are seen during meditation.
  • Theta activity has been associated with improved sleep, cognition, and less anxiety.
  • Meditation can improve neuroplasticity.
  • Regular meditation has many health benefits.

Meditation has been shown to have remarkable benefits for the meditator. Improved mental health has long been associated with meditation as it can reduce anxiety, fear, and sadness. But it can also improve sleep, pain, cognition, and inflammation.

Meditative states are associated with particular brain wave activity that can be measured using electroencephalograms (EEG). EEGs are known to be a tool to detect epileptic activity but it is also widely used for the assessment of encephalopathies, a disorder of altered consciousness.

Waves of the brain, as measured on EEG, are representative of the electrical activity of the cortical (surface layer of grey matter) neurons which are, in turn, influenced by the activity and actions of brain regions beneath the cortex and deep within the brain. The different regions do not necessarily emit the same frequency and an EEG is an electrophysiologic test used to assess the functional properties of our brains by measuring neuronal electrical interactions. It is a gross depiction of brain activity and needs to be interpreted in a clinical and observatory context as the electrodes of an EEG are just on the surface and do not pick up the activity of deeper structures, where much of our mystery lies.

There are several waveforms of clinical interest that represent different frequencies but also can be seen with different activity and are noted on EEG studies. They are Gamma waves (25-140 Hz) which are associated with focus and concentration and may be related to memory recall; Alpha waves (8-13 Hz), a basic rhythm that occurs in our awake state and responds to visual input and stimuli; Beta waves (> 13 Hz) which can commonly be a result of drug effect; Theta waves (4-7Hz) associated with drowsiness and meditative states; Delta waves (<4Hz) which can be seen in adults during deep states of sleep, Mu waves (7-11 Hz) which can be changed by touch, movement, and the mere thought of movement; and Lambda waves, which are shaped like the Greek letter lambda and are provoked in particular regions of the brain when scanning a vision.

Theta activity seen on electroencephalograms is in the range of 4-7 Hz and while commonly seen in children, theta waves are also seen in adults in a non-alert state such as drowsiness or when in states of consciousness where awareness of the physical world around us is lessened.

Interestingly, theta waves can also be seen when performing focused mental tasks and during hypnosis. Furthermore, there is research that suggests that theta activity can promote white matter changes and enhance neuroplasticity. Regular meditators were found to have improved volumes of the hippocampi, the region of the brain most associated with memory function.

Theta waves can be manipulated through meditation. Meditation, depending on how deep of a level of consciousness one can achieve, can create theta bursts or rhythmic chains of theta waves. There is also evidence that with true and deep meditation, theta waves can persist a period after meditation is complete and may have lasting effects between meditation sessions.

Theta waves are a common marker of drowsiness yet one is still arousable. This state is sometimes referred to as a transitional period between an awake state and a true drowsy state where sleep is then entered. Experienced meditators can hold that level of consciousness and restorative sleep is more easily achieved.

​Meditation is a powerful tool to achieve a state of consciousness as defined by rhythmic and synchronized theta activity. This state, some meditation proponents argue, is where our true authenticity lies, and where we're able to "disconnect" from societal and cultural pressures.

I have been meditating for decades and it has evolved over the years. I often guide patients on meditation during an appointment to help them reconnect with their base selves to find a place of hope and to begin to heal. Being quiet, listening closely, and focusing on your breath can be remarkably therapeutic.

Mindful meditation has been shown to improve reactive response and thus decrease anxiety, stress, and fear. It can help reduce sympathetic outflow and adrenaline surge. There is decreased inflammation, protection of organs, and decreased pain. Meditation can also enhance memory, improve sleep, sharpen focus and concentration, and boost feelings of contentment, satisfaction, and joy.

We exist on the outside as well as on the inside and that connection is powerful. Meditation can help us to harness that healing power within.

More from Ilene S. Ruhoy M.D., Ph.D.
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