I was having lunch with an old friend of mine the other day. I hadn’t seen her since just after she had her baby. That was four years ago. I can’t believe how fast time flies when you’re doing the same routine day in and day out. If you don’t and look up from what you’re doing, life can zip right by without bothering to take you along for the ride.
She was telling me about how her son has all these imaginary friends. He has normal friends as well, he goes to this kindergarten three days a week, and he gets on well with the kids there, but while he’s at home, and his dad isn’t around, he’s always wandering around talking to people that aren’t there. When my friend asks him about them, he acts like she’s the one living in an alternative reality. He can see them, why can’t she?
She wasn’t too worried, but seeing as he’s her only kid, and she’s never experienced the “imaginary friend” thing, she started checking around to find out how normal it was. Maybe her house was actually filled with ghosts or something, and he could see them, and she couldn’t. If that were the case, she would need to learn to communicate with them so they wouldn’t keep him up past his bedtime.
She was telling me she did all this research, and actually went to see a specialist in child development. What she found out was both interesting and relieving. Her kid was normal, and her house wasn’t filled with ghosts. At least none that she or he could see.
What he told her was how the brain develops as we grow older, and one way that the brain switches between externally focused and internally focused. All of this has overlap with other areas of brain research, but part of it is particularly useful for understand how children develop, and how they are often in their own worlds, which seem to them as real as these words you are reading now.
The brain has four basic categories of brainwaves. The brainwaves are made up of all the electrical impulses pulsing throughout the brain at any given time. Every time you have a thought, conscious or unconscious, several billion neurons fire off in particular orders. The sum total of the firing of neurons, and the resultant wave of electrical impulses can be measured. They range from very slow, long brainwaves, to fast and short ones. Each category is associated with a different “type” of brain activity.
Most adults alternate between beta and alpha. Beta is the fastest, and is what most people experience when we are awake. Externally focused, thinking about the things around us and how to deal with them. Extremely high levels of beta are thought to be an indication of stress and anxiety. (An indication, not a cause).
The next is alpha. (An interesting side note, alpha is not the fastest, even though it’s called alpha. It’s called alpha only because it was the first one they discovered.) Alpha is associated with daydreaming, drifting off into imaginations about the past or the future. Artists and creative thinkers find alpha particularly helpful, as this is where they get a lot of their inspiration. When you kind of “zone out” in the middle of something, you have slipped from beta into alpha.
The next one down is theta. This is where all hallucinations, hypnosis, and deep meditation occur. During theta you can have wild ideas and thoughts. When you are falling asleep at night, and you drift from thinking about normal, every day thoughts, and catch your thoughts drifting seemingly on their own, with you just watching them, you’ve slipped into theta.
As adults, it’s very hard to be in theta and stay awake. Theta is that brief space between waking and sleep. Advanced meditators can hold this state for a while, but it takes some practice. Theta is though to be where genius ideas come from. Edison used to sit in a chair in a dark room, holding a weight in his outstretched hand. As soon as he drifted into sleep, and into theta, he would drop the weight. This would wake him up, and he would immediately write down as much as he could. This is how he came up with so many creative ideas. It wasn’t that he was smarter or more creative than the rest of us, it was just he effectively used his brains capacity to slip into theta, and exploit all of the genius level thinking that occurs during that phase.
Other scientists and inventors have used dreams, which are also in the theta brainwave state, to come up with ideas that have literally changed the face of science and industry.
One of the things that child development researchers are starting to discover is that when kids are growing up, they are in theta state a large portion of the time. Much more so that adults. Their brains are growing, and learning, and theta is the natural brainwave state to be in if you are learning about your environment for the first time. Learning how to walk and talk is one thing, but kids also naturally learn complex things like values, beliefs handed down with their parents, and complex emotional issues. They believe that theta is the perfect brainwave state for building strategies in the brain for dealing understanding and dealing with reality.
This may be why thinking of a problem just before bed is particularly helpful. Even though you may not remember, while you’re in the theta state just before sleep, your brain can come up with some pretty creative solutions to your problems, as Edison and others can attest to.
For most adults thought, accessing theta is only achievable through long practice of meditation. Unless we consciously practice in a regular basis, theta only comes with sleep, and unless we program ourselves before sleep to solve problems, the usefulness of theta is only useful to children.
But recently there have been discoveries that theta brainwave states can be achievable by listening to specific sounds. Sounds that we listen to have a profound impact on our brainwaves. With properly engineered sound, and focused concentration, theta is easily accessible by anyone with a CD player and pair of headphones.
It really is possible to tap into that same genius level creativity that Einstein, Edison and others have used over the years to solve problems, and come up with some astounding ideas that have changed the course of human history.
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