Neuroscience, Meet Clinical Psychology


In the late 1960s and 1970s it was learned that it was possible to recondition and retrain brainwave patterns (Kamiya, 2011; Sterman, LoPresti, & Fairchild, 2010). Some of this work began with training to increase alpha brainwave activity for the purpose of increasing relaxation, whereas other work originating at University of California, Los Angeles focused first on animal and then human research on assisting uncontrolled epilepsy. This brainwave training is called EEG biofeedback or neurofeedback. Prior to a more detailed discussion, the author will review some preliminary information about brainwave activity. Brainwaves occur at various frequencies. Some are fast, and some are quite slow. The classic names of these EEG bands are delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma. They are measured in cycles per second or hertz (Hz). The following definitions, although lacking in scientific rigor, will provide the general reader with some conception of the activity associated with different frequency bands.

Gamma brainwaves are very fast EEG activity above 30 Hz. Although further research is required on these frequencies, we know that some of this activity is associated with intensely focused attention and in assisting the brain to process and bind together information from different areas of the brain. Beta brainwaves are small, relatively fast brainwaves (above 13–30 Hz) associated with a state of mental, intellectual activity and outwardly focused concentration. This is basically a ‘‘bright-eyed, bushy-tailed’’ state of alertness. Activity in the lower end of this frequency band (e.g., the sensorimotor rhythm, or SMR) is associated with relaxed attentiveness. Alpha brainwaves (8–12 Hz) are slower and larger. They are generally associated with a state of relaxation. Activity in the lower half of this range represents to a considerable degree the brain shifting into an idling gear, relaxed and a bit disengaged, waiting to respond when needed. If people merely close their eyes and begin picturing something peaceful, in less than half a minute there begins to be an increase in alpha brainwaves.



These brainwaves are especially large in the back third of the head. Theta (4–8 Hz) activity generally represents a more daydreamlike, rather spacey state of mind that is associated with mental inefficiency. At very slow levels, theta brainwave activity is a very relaxed state, representing the twilight zone between waking and sleep. Delta brainwaves (.5– 3.5 Hz) are very slow, high-amplitude (magnitude) brainwaves and are what we experience in deep, restorative sleep. In general, different levels of awareness are associated with dominant brainwave states.

It should be noted, however, that each of us always has some degree of each of these various brainwave frequencies present in different parts of our brain. Delta brainwaves will also occur, for instance, when areas of the brain go ‘‘off line’’ to take up nourishment, and delta is also associated with learning disabilities. If someone is becoming drowsy, there are more delta and slower theta brainwaves creeping in, and if people are somewhat inattentive to external things and their minds are wandering, there is more theta present. If someone is exceptionally anxious and tense, an excessively high frequency of beta brainwaves may be present in different parts of the brain, but in other cases this may be associated with an excess of inefficient alpha activity in frontal areas that are associated with emotional control. Persons with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD, ADHD), head injuries, stroke, epilepsy, developmental disabilities, and often chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia tend to have excessive slow waves (usually theta and sometimes excess alpha) present. When an excessive amount of slow waves are present in the executive (frontal) parts of the brain, it becomes difficult to control attention, behavior, and/or emotions.


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