What if a jolt of inspiration could be just that: a jolt? Scientists at the University of North Carolina have succeeded at using electricity to enhance brain waves that contribute to creativity. This research marks the first time scientists have demonstrated a causal link between enhanced alpha oscillations and complex behavior. These results could revolutionize future treatments of mental illness.
Brain waves are synchronized oscillations in neural activity that can be measured with an EEG, or electroencephalograph. By measuring these rhythmic electrical patterns, scientists can determine how the overall neuron population is functioning.
Five known types of brain waves exist:
Delta brain waves are the slowest brain waves. They are generated during intense meditation and during deep, dreamless sleep
Theta brain waves occur during light sleep and meditation
Beta brain waves occur during alert wakefulness. Scientists believe that these brain waves promote concentration and excitement
Gamma brain waves are the fastest brain waves and play a role in information processing
Alpha brain waves occur during calm wakefulness
Researchers once believed that alpha brain waves simply represented the brain “idling” between tasks, doing nothing of importance. They now suspect that during alpha waves, the brain focuses inward rather than outward. Alpha waves are present during daydreaming, meditation and brainstorming.
If researchers can successfully enhance alpha waves and thereby enhance creativity, then they could conclusively link alpha waves with these internally focused behaviors. Better yet, if researchers can improve alpha waves in healthy individuals, then maybe they can also enhance them in depressed individuals, a population known to have decreased alpha waves.
Twenty volunteers participated in the study. Researchers attached electrodes to each volunteer’s scalp above the frontal lobes. The brain’s frontal lobes are associated with executive functions, problem solving and – not surprisingly – creativity. Each participant performed a Torrance Test of Creative Thinking twice.
In one session, participants were given a “sham stimulation,” or a false stimulation that did nothing to their alpha wave activity. In another session, participants received a 10-Hertz current that ran through the electrodes attached to their scalp. Both sessions felt identical to the participant. Despite this, participants scored significantly higher on creativity during the 10-Hertz current session.
In other words, the researchers were able to successfully increase creativity by enhancing the natural functioning of the brain’s alpha waves.
These results show great promise for the future of depression treatment. Studies have indicated that people with depression have reduced alpha waves when compared with the healthy population. If alpha waves can be enhanced in healthy people, perhaps diminished alpha activity can be mitigated in people with depression.
To examine how alpha wave enhancement can help people with depression, the senior researcher Flavio Fröhlich, Ph.D., who is also a member of the UNC Neuroscience Center, is now in collaboration with David Rubinow, M.D., chair of the department of psychiatry. They are currently enrolling patients for clinical trials.
What can people with depression do in the meantime? Is it possible for someone to enhance their own alpha waves? Not surprisingly, shocking one’s own brain is a dangerous and unpredictable venture – the researchers explicitly caution against trying their study at home.
A safe and surprisingly effective way to increase alpha wave activity is to practice meditation. In 2010, a study found that performing a form of meditation, known as Acem Meditation, significantly increased the amount of alpha waves in the brain.
“The amount of alpha waves increases when the brain relaxes from intentional, goal-oriented tasks,” explained Professor Øyvind Ellingsen, M.D., from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and one of the study’s researchers, in a press release. “This is a sign of deep relaxation.”
Widespread, futuristic brain-zapping technology might still be beyond our grasps, but that does not mean we cannot take steps to ensure our own well-being while we wait.