Alpha Activity and Your Sleep

He's a peaceful sleeper

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Alpha activity is a pattern of brain wave activity that indicates wakefulness with eyes closed and often precedes sleep. It occurs with a rhythm of eight to 13 cycles per second (Hz) and is best measured in the occipital region of the brain, which is located at the back of the head.

Alpha wave activity means that the brain is in a relaxed state, but you're still awake. Alpha waves are present when you are daydreaming or practicing mindfulness or meditation, and can also be produced during aerobic exercise. Increased alpha activity has also been found to boost creativity, and can even reduce depressive symptoms and chronic pain by increasing your ability to ignore the sensations, research finds.

When you are asleep, the brain usually does not produce alpha waves. But in some cases, the inappropriate alpha activity can lead to sleep disorders. Here is how the alpha activity is measured, and what you should know about how brain waves impact your sleep.

How Is Alpha Activity Measured?

The most common test for measuring brain waves, including alpha waves and alpha activity, is an electroencephalogram (EEG). For the test, small metal electrodes that can measure brain patterns are placed on the scalp. The patterns are then read by a neurologist, who can use the information to diagnose various conditions, including sleep disorders and the risk for seizures.

When Alpha Activity Is Disrupted

Disturbed alpha activity can result in the inability to relax and poor sleep quality. One example of this is the alpha-EEG anomaly, an abnormal sleep pattern that occurs most prevalently in people with fibromyalgia. During deep sleep, the brain should be producing delta waves. In people with alpha-EEG anomaly, the brain produces alpha waves during periods when it should be only producing delta waves, which can lead to restlessness and sleep that is not refreshing. 

Other Types of Brain Waves

Alpha waves are just one of many brainwaves that are involved in how we think, feel, communicate, sleep and generally function.

Delta Waves: At .5 to 3 Hz, delta waves are the slowest brain waves and occur in the deepest states of sleep. 

Theta Waves: At 3 to 8 Hz, theta waves also occur during sleep, and have been observed in very deep states of meditation.

Beta Waves: These are the most common daytime brain waves, with a rhythm of 12 to 30 Hz. They are dominant in normal wakeful states and when you are focused on cognitive and other tasks, such as problem-solving or decision making.

Gamma Waves: These are the fastest of the brain waves, with a rhythm of 25 to 100 Hz. They process information from various brain areas and are responsible for conscious perception.

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Article Sources

  • Bergland, C. (2015, April 17). Alpha Brain Waves Boost Creativity and Reduce Depression. Psychology Today.

  • Sacchet, M. D., Laplante, R. A., Wan, Q., Pritchett, D. L., Lee, A. K., Hamalainen, M., . . . Jones, S. R. (2015). Attention Drives Synchronization of Alpha and Beta Rhythms between Right Inferior Frontal and Primary Sensory Neocortex. ​Journal of Neuroscience, 35(5), 2074-2082.