Taking Your Meditation Up a Notch: Have you used Brainwave Entrainment?

Apr 11, 2024

I have begun to believe that there is almost nothing more significant for our day-to-day health than our ability to become centered and calm.  If we can do that, i.e., if we can find and move into a calm place, regularly, at will, we are wellness rockstars.  This ability to self-soothe means that we have developed not only a certain emotional and cognitive flexibility but also a critical physiological flexibility.  By that I mean, we have developed a certain ability to flip back and forth between sympathetic and parasympathetic dominance, and to let our body enter ‘healing’ or restorative states when needed.  That is, apparently, a pretty big deal.  It’s an indicator of higher heart rate variability and of reduced all-cause mortality

As you might remember from your high school biology course, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are two branches of the autonomic nervous system responsible for regulating involuntary bodily functions. The sympathetic nervous system is often associated with the "fight or flight" response, which is activated in times of stress or danger. When stimulated, it increases heart rate, dilates pupils, and redirects blood flow to vital organs, preparing the body for action. Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system is known as the "rest and digest" system, promoting relaxation and recovery. It operates during periods of rest, aiding in digestion, lowering heart rate, and promoting overall restoration. These two systems work in balance to maintain homeostasis, with the sympathetic system ramping up activity during times of stress and the parasympathetic system restoring calmness and equilibrium during periods of relaxation. 

Or, they should work in balance.  Sadly, most of us are stuck in the fight or flight state most of the time.  It’s just the way the world is now:  we are overstimulated - by worry, by work, by social media, by the blue light of our screens, even by the inflammatory diets that keep us jacked up on sugar and carbs. 

So, we need to work at calming down. 

And, so many of us try to meditate.  In the search for our calming center, meditation stands as a timeless practice revered across cultures and traditions. Rooted in ancient wisdom yet embraced by modern science, meditation is a gateway to new depths of consciousness, where profound states of relaxation, insight, and even healing can be found. 

That’s what they say . . . but I think finding those new depths can take awhile.  Despite the fact that I have been meditating off-and-on for decades, I’m still a novice.  I haven’t realised any altered consciousness or profound truths, and I’m not speaking in tongues yet.   But, I think that over the past three or four years, I have realised growth.  In fact, I think I’ve moved to an entirely different level. Most of this growth is because I have been working with a coach who is patiently pulling me along.  (FYI, coaching is something I strongly recommend to all!)  But some of the advance is because I’ve learned about and been playing with brainwave entrainment. 

Did you know that there are multiple brainwave states we can realise during our day?  I didn’t . . . until recently.  But there are, and actually learning to access those different states can help change not only the meditative experience but also the physiological consequence of it. Needless to say, I’m kind of excited about it. 

So, briefly, there are multiple brainwaves that we can, and likely do, experience each day.  These brainwaves can be described in terms of the electrical activity they facilitate inside our brain but, they can also be described in terms of the various neurological ‘states’ they support. There are five of these different ‘states:’ alpha, beta, theta, delta, and gamma, each of which is associated with a unique level of mental activity, relaxation, and arousal.  Today’s we look closely at the alpha and theta states, which we are most likely to access during our meditation. 

In brief, alpha waves are measured at oscillations of between 8 and 12 hertz (Hz), and are associated with relaxed wakefulness.  When you are in an alpha state, you are most likely to be inwardly focussed, experiencing real creativity and an enhanced receptivity to new ideas and awareness.  It’s this state that we’re mostly likely to experience during meditation. 

The theta state is a deep state of stillness.  Typically oscillating between 4 and 8 Hz, theta waves suggest a movement beyond ordinary consciousness, facilitating great intuition, creativity and insight.  The theta state is synonymous with dreamlike imagery, heightened suggestibility, and access to the subconscious mind.

Both states are certainly desirable states to realise when meditating. Indeed, I think the intentional modulation of our brainwave states can dramatically change - and amplify -  the meditative experience.  But how we can we access these states? 

We can do that with something called entrainment.  What is entrainment?  Entrainment, a  concept originating from complex systems theory, is akin to synchronisation.  Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch physicist, first identified entrainment in 1665 while working on an experiment involving pendulum clocks.  Apparently, he wound some clocks in his lab one evening and started all of their pendulums swinging, only to come back the next morning to find that the pendulum swings were perfectly 'in sync' with one another.

In fact, lots of things become entrained in daily life.  When women are living together, their menstrual cycles can become entrained. Fireflies also appear to synchronise their flashes.  And, traffic flow on highways often exhibits entrainment, particularly during peak hours. Apparently, vehicles tend to synchronise their speeds and spacing to maintain a consistent flow, even in the absence of explicit coordination. 

To me,  this is fascinating . . . but for the purposes of this blog, we want to be thinking about how we ‘entrain’ our brain - or rather, how we can modify our brainwave patterns to induce different states of mind.  Thankfully, there are a number of practical techniques that have been developed to help us guide our minds into alpha and theta frequencies:  These include: 

Listening to Binaural Beats:  When the individual is listening to the appropriately engineered piece of music, which includes binaural beats (two distinct beats),  your brain is able to perceive subtle differences in the sound frequencies of these two beats, creating a perceived third tone that corresponds to the desired brainwave state. When using stereo headphones and listening to these specific frequency pairs, meditators can entrain their brainwaves, facilitating shifts into alpha and/or theta states.  You can find lots of different binaural beat audio tracks on YouTube.  Here’s a free track that I’ve listened to that supposedly promotes the alpha state.  And, here’s another paid version that may be interesting.  Please, let me know if you find others that are particularly good.

Using Guided Meditations: Using guided meditation scripts or recordings can also help induce alpha and theta states, as skilled facilitators guide participants through imagery, relaxation, and visualisation exercises tailored to evoke these deeper states of consciousness. I have personally enjoyed the Mindvalley programme entitled the Silva Ultramind System.  The guided meditations available in that programme are tremendous for helping me realise, what I think are, alpha states.   Is it the language, the voice tone, or perhaps the music playing in the background? Whatever it is, it works for me. 

Breathwork and Visualization: Conscious control of the breath, combined with visualisation techniques, offers another direct pathway to modulating brainwave activity. By synchronising breath with mental imagery, meditators can cultivate alpha and theta states, tapping into the wellspring of creativity, intuition, and inner wisdom. A medical review of breathwork techniques substantiates the connection between breathwork and altered brainwave states, and improvements in heart rate variability.  Below I describe two types of breathing that can help ease you into an alpha, relaxed, brainwave state.  I can’t believe they’ll work immediately.  But if you’re able to invest a bit of time each day to practice these techniques, I am quite sure that you’ll experience improvement in the way you are feeling and thinking.

Deep Belly Breathing (Diaphragmatic Breathing): This involves breathing deeply into the belly rather than shallowly into the chest. To practice diaphragmatic breathing, sit or lie down comfortably. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Inhale deeply through your nose, allowing your abdomen to rise as you fill your lungs with air. Exhale slowly through your mouth, feeling your abdomen fall. Focus on making your breaths slow, deep, and rhythmic. This type of breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and reducing stress, which can help induce the alpha state.

Box Breathing: Also known as square breathing, this technique involves equalising the length of inhalation, holding the breath, exhalation, and holding the breath again, creating a box-like pattern. Start by inhaling deeply for a count of four seconds, then hold your breath for four seconds. Exhale slowly for four seconds, then hold your breath again for four seconds before starting the cycle again. Repeat this pattern for several minutes. Box breathing helps regulate the autonomic nervous system, promoting a sense of calm and balance conducive to entering the alpha state.

I so hope you enjoy exploring these resources and practices.  Again, the point of all of these are to improve the experiences you have meditating, because meditation is so critically important for our health and wellbeing.  Indeed, there is new evidence that movement into the alpha and theta brainwave states may also facilitate improvement in our vagal tone, making meditation still more significant for our cognitive and emotional wellbeingClearly, what's good just keeps getting better. So, let's keep doing it. 


Yours in health & happiness,