A study appearing in Neuron has determined that you can improve your attention by lowering alpha waves in the brain.
Alpha waves are produced by waves from fluctuations in electrical signals produced by the brain’s neurons. Brain waves are differentiated by their frequency, and the frequency of alpha waves is between 8 and 12 hertz. Of the 5 types of brain waves, alpha waves are associated with feelings of relaxation and calmness, being produced in states of meditation and right before you drift off to sleep. During deep meditation and once asleep, the brain waves change into theta and lastly into delta, the deep healing sleep phase.
Alpha waves are one of the 3 brain waves that do not occur in a state of sleep. Gamma waves are associated with active thinking, followed by Beta waves (which is what our brains operate in most of the time when we are awake and experiencing normal consciousness). Beta waves are connected to feelings of anxiety and stress and overall “busy-ness.”
Alpha is a brain wave which is still alert like beta waves, but it can be described as reflective, calm, and harmonious. Most of us do not reach alpha during our usual activities during the day without employing mindfulness or meditation techniques. Without intentionally choosing to slow down and enter a meditative or calm and thoughtful state of mine, we usually only experience alpha right before our bodies fall asleep.
Researchers have been interested in brain waves and their role in human health, as Parkinson’s disease has been associated with an excess of beta waves. Alpha waves, though calming, appear to moderate the flow of sensory information to the brain; such as visual sensory information which was the focus of this study.
Previous research in both animals and humans had concluded that decreasing alpha waves enhanced attentional span, but it was still unknown if it was directly related to alpha waves themselves, or another brain process that involves attention. The researchers focused on the parietal cortex region of the brain.
Participants were asked to perform a task while they were monitored for alpha waves. They were asked to look at a screen with a pattern and asked to try to increase the visibility of the pattern by changing the contrast of the screen with just focus and attention. Their brains were scanned with magnetoencephalography (MEG), and researchers could see the activity of alpha waves in each hemisphere of the brain.
Trying to change contrast on a screen with just the power of your mind seems pretty far out—but participants were actually able to increase the contrast of their pattern by unknowingly changing their brain’s alpha waves. Researchers noted that as the alpha waves in each hemisphere of the brain differed from one side to the other, the participants saw a difference in the screen. As the levels in each hemisphere became unequal, the participants saw the pattern on the screen with greater visibility.
The participants had no idea how they were doing this, but it is due to the enhancing their attention on the side of the brain opposite from their visual center. Their brains achieved this by decreasing the amount of alpha waves in that hemisphere.
There are some supplements that can increase alpha brain waves, such as L-Theanine, which would produce feelings of calmness and can assist you with reaching a meditative state. It’s interesting that decreasing alpha waves can direct attention to the area of the brain where it’s needed. More research is needed to determine how scientists can use this information to help people find more focus.
Bagherzadeh, Yasaman, et al. “Alpha Synchrony and the Neurofeedback Control of Spatial Attention.” Neuron, 4 Dec. 2019, doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2019.11.001.