Understanding Me - What is my Brain Doing?
The human brain is probably nature’s greatest wonder - we are incredibly lucky to own one! That amazingly complex brain of yours never stops. Think of it, every minute of every day and night for the whole of your life, it is constantly working one way or another, to keep you alive. And not just alive, but ready to respond to whatever is required in the most effective way possible.
How often do you really think about it though? Or consciously do anything to keep it fully maintained to be the priceless control centre that it is?
We’re having to wake up and become more aware of our brains in recent years because it’s clear something is going wrong.
Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are among the fastest rising causes of disease and death in elderly people. For example, surveys show that dementia affects 1 in 14 people aged over 65 in the UK, and one in 10 in the USA and Australia. In the UK approximately 1 million people will be diagnosed with dementia by 2021.
Since we know that dementia involves malfunctions of the brain, this is a clear message that we need to look after ours a whole lot better! And as we can expect to live to a significantly older age these days, we need to be aware that we are asking our brains to work for us a whole lot longer.
The secret to caring for any part of your body is first to understand it, and this is why we have written this Understanding Me series.
To understand ourselves, we don’t need lots of theory and anatomy, we need proper information so that we can influence and control our individual health and wellbeing.
When we understand how our inner mind is formed and how it can control us, we can actually choose to direct the activity within our brains. This reduces the stress that can often contribute to unhealthy ageing.
So let’s get started...
Your brain coordinates the crucial biological systems that your body depends on and most of this happens without you being aware of it - unless something goes wrong.
This ‘unconscious’ element of your brain controls basic functions, like ensuring that you breathe, that your bodily organs keep operating, your heart beats and your immune system functions.
In this respect, your unconscious brain is a bit like an automatic control centre. It is constantly making adjustments and keeping things balanced through incredibly complex chemical and electrical systems.
This unconscious brain is also working all the time to make life easier for you - it tries to find things that it can make ‘automatic’ because this frees up energy and capacity for what we call your ‘conscious’ brain and the rest of your body’s functions.
You’ve had that experience - when something feels really difficult and slow at first, as the conscious mind grapples with new things (like learning to drive, ride a bike, swim or shave, or a new app on your phone.)
But through practice and repetition, you find that you can eventually do those things without consciously thinking about it.
When you stop thinking about a skill or technique and do it automatically, you know your unconscious brain is in control. We use this knowledge deliberately when we practice sporting moves over and over again, for example. We are aiming to get those moves more and more automated by programming our brains.
In fact, with things like driving a familiar route, it’s almost as if the unconscious brain takes over fully, allowing you to daydream, plan your day, or be deeply involved in conversation, and all the time you are driving safely and accurately to your destination (a state known as ‘highway hypnosis’).
The more things your unconscious brain can make automatic for you, the less you have to actively ‘think’ in order to live your life. In fact, it is said that by the age of 35, 90% of you is essentially a ‘set of habits’. Great if you like those habits, not so great if they frustrate or puzzle you!
Unfortunately, this also extends to the things that we believe and feel. Without us knowing, our unconscious mind can decide to make a belief or feeling ‘automatic’ because it observes us thinking or feeling that thing repeatedly.
There is a phrase ‘we are what we repeatedly think’ and there is a lot of truth in it.
If as a child you came to think ‘I am not good enough, attractive enough, clever enough or ‘I am clumsy’, the unconscious brain upon hearing these repeating patterns would ‘helpfully’ wire them into your mind as automatic.
So much so, that your conscious mind is no longer involved and does not question it anymore. You automatically go through life believing that you are not good enough etc.
This belief, stemming from your unconscious mind, then influences your decisions, choices, actions and behaviours. Your conscious mind might even ask ‘why am I like this’ without realising the power of that early wiring that your unconscious mind did.
So, the thing to remember is that whilst it's wonderful that a huge unconscious part of our brain gets on with things and wires us for the life we are living, we must be alert to its tendency to sometimes wire us in ways we wouldn’t choose, or no longer want.
To manage this, we must use our incredible conscious brain to feed our subconscious brain with the ideas, beliefs and programmes that are truly helpful, and make sure that it’s not keeping us stuck in old ways, or driving us forward in ways that no longer serve us.
Many people will have the experience of deciding something consciously eg,
‘I am now going to be confident when I speak publicly or meet new people.’
That sounds like a good decision doesn’t it?
Rationally, there is no reason why you can’t just do it, you know pretty much what acting confidently means, what you need to do.
But then, having decided that you’ll act differently and feeling determined, the moment to be confident comes, and seemingly from nowhere you blush, hesitate, stammer or pull out of the situation. That’s your unconscious mind taking over, causing you not to act in a way you had consciously decided not to, but the way you have become programmed to act.
The unconscious mind sometimes appears to ‘think’ like this:
‘Well, if behaving/thinking/feeling a certain way has enabled me to survive this far in life, then it must be a good thing, it must be helping me survive.’
Sometimes we have to do a bit of work to reprogramme the unconscious part of the mind, to convince it that change or letting go of something is not a threat to your survival.
We’ll tackle ways of dealing with this and changing our programming in future Understanding Me articles; for now, the important thing to take away is that the part of your brain that you are not conscious of, whilst great at helping you breathe etc without worrying, is controlling a whole lot more of you, and your experience of life, than you might think!
The unconscious mind’s smaller partner
By contrast, your conscious brain is what makes you aware of who you are. When you wake up in the morning it’s this part of your brain, the one that creates consciousness, that is waking up.
The conscious part of your brain is concerned with knowledge and problem-solving. Our conscious brain enables us to focus our attention as we choose. It helps us to be deliberately alert and aware of danger, enables us to exercise care and to be thorough in what we do.
It also works to help us correct mistakes, make new plans and to make decisions.
In order to help us do all these things, this conscious function of the brain is also active in searching for new information and experience, considering what’s best for us, and of course normal, everyday ‘thinking’.
Your conscious mind will actively assess new situations and is capable of directing things in a different way.
If you want to make changes in your life, or to your habits, your conscious mind will need to take the lead role - your more programmed unconscious mind will mostly try to keep things as they are.
To begin to make changes, it helps to know about brain waves…
What are brainwaves?
Your brain is made up of billions of nerve cells, or neurons. These neurons communicate with each other both chemically and electrically.
The electrical charges produced by your brain’s activity can be detected with an EEG (Electroencephalograph) machine. When you have an EEG test, a technician fits you with a cap containing lots of small electrodes which can detect small electrical pulses.
The technician can measure how frequent these pulses are and record them as electrical ‘waves’ according to how fast or slow they are. Fast waves correspond with busy intense brain activity (when we are fully awake and ‘doing’ things) and slow waves signal a more relaxed harmonious state.
Studies have been done to put these brain waves into categories and matched these with our states/behaviours in each category. For many years it was thought that there were four recognisable categories of brain wave, but more recently a fifth has been discovered. Here is a summary of those brain waves states:
Beta waves appear when you are active, busy, anxious or concentrating. You will have mostly beta waves when you are:
Working involving thinking
Problem-solving or using logical thinking.
Beta waves are fast. When your mind is racing, you’ll produce beta waves.
When you are stressed or anxious and you can’t seem to control your thoughts, you’ll record lots of beta activity.
You also have beta waves activated if you consciously try to bring up a memory. Other brain waves are still active in your mind during this time but will be more in the background.
Alpha waves appear during calm and relaxing times in your day and when you shut your eyes.
If beta waves signify your conscious thoughts, then alpha waves are the bridge between your conscious and unconscious thoughts. So, when you are relaxed and your thoughts are just idly drifting through your mind, you’ll be producing alpha waves.
Alpha waves also show up during mindful activity, such as light meditation or half dosing, or just gazing out to sea.
Alpha waves are slower than beta waves. In the ‘alpha state,’ your mind can absorb information more efficiently. If you can persuade your brain to enter an alpha state when learning new skills and information you will learn more efficiently.
Moving slower than alpha waves, theta waves take over when we are in deep relaxation. When theta waves are in action, your conscious mind is virtually or completely switched off. You produce theta waves when you are:
Practising visualisation/meditating more deeply
In a deep hypnotic trance
Totally focused on task so that you become unaware of time or anything beyond the task
When you are right on the edge of sleep you will be in the ‘theta state’. In this state you might be in bed but no longer aware that you are, you are perfectly poised between waking and sleeping.
This theta state of mind is a pretty amazing place to be. Whilst experiencing theta, your conscious mind stops getting in the way and, in a sense, you have greater access to your unconscious mind. This is the state of mind that enables us to accelerate learning, effect change, reprogram beliefs, set resolutions (that we actually carry out), challenge unhelpful beliefs, defuse trauma and much more.
In this state you have more access to your creative side, you can tune into your intuition, recall long-forgotten memories, and you can dream and experience deep meditation.
We now know that your brain has the ability to rewire itself, to literally change the way it thinks. This is called neuroplasticity.
Those programmed beliefs, limits and unwanted feelings can be ‘unwired’ and new thoughts, intentions, creations can be ‘wired’ in. The theta state, which is the equivalent of the brain being moldable like plasticine, is what we can use to bring this about.
Small children, up to the age of about 6/7 spend most of their time in a theta state. This is why they can learn such vast amounts of information and new skills so quickly - their minds are open and seem to download everything without question.
Of course, this can have considerable downsides, as we can be programmed with all sorts of unhelpful attitudes and beliefs in our early years without being aware of it. This can then play out later in our lives.
When we are asleep our brain produces Delta waves. The deeper the sleep, the more delta waves will appear. Delta waves help you to:
Repair and maintain bodily functions and skin
Boost your immune system
Promote general well being
Recharge your mind
Burn fat (through the production of growth hormones)
During the first few months of your life, you will spend most of your time in the delta state, which promotes growth.
Delta waves are still being studied. Research is made more difficult because our consciousness is completely switched off in the delta state so what actually goes on is a bit of a mystery!
As you grow older delta waves decrease, dropping from your mid-forties onwards. By the time you are 75, there will be very little, if any, delta wave activity in your brain. Again, we are not sure of the reasons or implications of this.
Gamma waves are the highest frequency and seem to be associated with a high level of information processing and activities where many regions of the brain need to be coordinated. A good level of gamma activity in the brain is associated with a good memory. Deep meditation can improve gamma activity.
So how does this information help you?
If we can consciously recognise what state our mind is currently running in, we can consciously change it.
Being aware of these different ‘brainwave states’ is a really helpful approach.
You now know, for example, that your brain needs to experience each of these brain states throughout your day to support your physical and mental wellbeing.
Look at your life and ask yourself whether you think you recognise these states - when is your brain busy/relaxed/in a dozy state/deeply asleep and unaware?
See if you can find a way to create alpha/theta states through deliberate relaxation and choice of activity such as those listed in this article (we’ve also included a technique below to help you).
To move from beta to alpha/theta states
When we are stressed, anxious, worried, or overthinking things, it can be hard to think straight, to rationally look at the situation and make positive decisions.
Although being in the ‘beta’ brain state is helpful in getting things done, when we feel too fast and ‘buzzy’, ie we are producing too many fast brain waves, then it can get in the way of being efficient and feeling good.
By consciously calming your mind down to produce more of the slower alpha waves, through techniques like deep breathing or meditation, you can exert control over the activity of your brain and stop yourself spiralling into a higher anxiety/stressed state.
It is actually quite simple to begin the process.
To begin, it can be as simple as closing your eyes. This triggers an increase in Alpha wave activity on its own.
Now add some long slow breathing and you’ll almost instantly notice your brain (and your body) start to feel much less frantic.
This is why meditation is so beneficial. The more you do it the easier, quicker and further your brain will drop into the relaxed states (waves) enabling you to bring yourself out of stressed states almost at will.
The same is true when you have a creative block, can’t decide where you want to go for dinner or can’t write that next chapter of your book. Next time you are stuck, give this a try…
Find somewhere quiet and still, somewhere you won't be disturbed.
Get comfortable, whether it's sitting, standing or lying down, it doesn’t matter, as long as you are comfy. Close your eyes and relax.
Start to take long slow deep breaths, concentrate on your breathing, just the feeling of the air entering and leaving your body. For the first 5-7 breaths try to make each one longer and slower than the last till you are breathing in for 5 and out for 7. Then once you feel the changes within your mind and you are feeling more relaxed and calmer, return to a normal comfortable breathing pattern.
Scan your body for tension, start at the top of your head and work your way down your body, if you find any tense muscles, let them relax before moving on. (the neck, jaw and tongue are classic examples of places where we can carry tension and not even realise)
If you are just wanting to slow down your mind then you can stop there but if you’d like to go into a deeper relaxation then carry on with the following:
Once you are relaxed, muscles are loose and your breathing is slow and steady you can start to let your mind wander, it doesn't matter where it goes, try to passively follow your thoughts, as if you are floating above them and just seeing where they are going. If you become aware that you are starting to control your thoughts, then just 'let them go' (this does take practise but gets easier) sit back and see where the journey takes you.
In this time you might see things, like daydreaming almost, thoughts and images may float in and out of your mind, again, passively watch them and see what happens.
Enjoy this time, it is yours and yours alone. Don’t allow feelings of guilt or ‘I should be doing something more productive with my time’ to slip in. After you have finished your relaxation you’ll find yourself so much more productive, that you’ll get more done than if you had stayed in your heightened/stressed state.
When you are ready, start to bring yourself back to a normal state of awareness, you’ll find that when fully awake you will still remain in a more relaxed state than when you first started. With time it’ll be harder and harder to get up into the heightened/stressed states.
Once you are awake again and your conscious mind is back in charge, write down any thoughts you had, ideas that came up, images you saw. They may solve an issue or give you a path to follow, or simply be an interesting insight into your mind! Either way, you’ll be relaxed, calm, and ready to attack the rest of the day with a more positive attitude.
We’ll soon be adding more on your amazing brain in the Understanding Me series, including the way in which what you eat and how you move and sleep affects the functioning of your brain.