The health benefits of mindfulness and meditation are now well understood, but what is actually happening in our brain when we engage in these practices?

Whether we are mentally active, resting or asleep, the brain always has some level of electrical activity.

There are 4 types of brain waves (electrical activity) we need to understand:

  • Beta waves: associated with day to day wakefulness.
  • Alpha Waves: active during periods of relaxation, whilst still awake.
  • Theta waves: slower in frequency and greater in amplitude than alpha waves.
  • Delta waves: the slowest and highest amplitude brain waves. Delta waves are characteristic of sleep.

In order to understand what happens to this brain activity during meditation, let’s first compare and contrast it what happens during sleep.

As we go about our day, beta waves rule our mind, helping us stay alert and awake. As we drift off to sleep, we begin to transition to the slower-frequency theta waves. This eventually progresses to delta waves, which are characteristic of deep sleep, the point when our brain waves are least like waking.

During meditation, two types of waves are most prominent:

Theta waves were most abundant in the frontal and middle parts of the brain. These types of waves originate from a relaxed attention that monitors our inner experiences. Theta waves indicate deep relaxation. These are more prominent in meditation than sleep.

Alpha waves were more abundant in the posterior parts of the brain and are characteristic of wakeful rest. The amount of alpha wave activity increases when the brain relaxes from intentional, goal-oriented tasks. This is a sign of deep relaxation – but it does not mean that the mind is void – according to Professor Øyvind Ellingsen from NTNU.

Recent evidence indicates that activities that promote alpha wave activity, appear to have positive health benefits.

Research suggests that there is little delta during meditation, confirming that meditation is different from sleep.

Beta waves (associated with goal-oriented tasks, such as planning a date or reflecting actively over a particular issue) were also minimal during meditation.

By Caelum Trott – Physiotherapist

Journal Reference:

  1. Lagopoulos et al. Increased Theta and Alpha EEG Activity During Nondirective MeditationThe Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2009; 15 (11): 1187 DOI: 1089/acm.2009.0113