How to Use Brain Waves to Enhance Your Writing Practice

From Jane Friedman:

Insights are the juice of a writing life that take us from not knowing to a god-like understanding of our stories. They feel like a lightning striking inside you and often cause you to say things like a-ha and that’s it!

While you can’t crack your head open and press the insight button, you can set the stage for insights to happen, and for you to do more organized, heads-down work.

To get started, let’s look at how your brain waves work.

Brain waves 101

Your brain’s neurons emit electrical waves as they communicate with one another. The five brain waves, from slowest to fastest, are delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma. Understanding which ones support specific writing activities can not only enhance your writing life, it can prevent you from unwittingly robbing yourself of that precious juice.

Delta (1–4 Hz) is the slowest brain wave pattern. In adults, they occur during deep, dreamless sleep. When you get adequate deep sleep, you feel refreshed, focused, and ready to take on the day. Good sleep hygiene, which includes things writers might begrudge, like limiting caffeine after 2:00 p.m. (the horror!), shutting off electronics that emit blue light two hours before bed, and setting a regular bedtime, can improve how much deep sleep you get.

Theta waves (4–8 Hz) are the second slowest. They occur during REM sleep and play an essential role in memory formation. They also occur on the edge between sleep and awakening, and are sometimes seen as the gateway to the subconscious. This wave state is associated with creativity, intuition, daydreaming, and fantasizing.

Alpha waves (8–14 Hz) occur when we’re in a state of wakefulness but not really concentrating on anything. When your brain emits a healthy level of alpha waves, you’re more likely to feel relaxed and in a positive state, two things needed for insights to happen. According to neurofeedback practitioner Jessica Eure, “A healthy, robust alpha frequency allows us to tune in to ourselves and tune out the external world a bit while still being fully awake. This allows us to visualize things in our mind’s eye.”

Alpha and theta brain states are great for gathering ideas, making unique connections, or tuning in to what your subconscious has to say. That’s why Julia Cameron encourages writers to not just write in the morning, but to write as soon as you wake up. A groggy mind has access to those theta waves.

Beta waves (14–30 Hz) are fast and active. They occur when we’re in the wide awake state needed for focus and concentration. Harnessing your low beta waves (12–15 Hz) can help you organize your thoughts and increase your productivity. But sometimes we have too much beta, or the beta brain waves we experience are at higher frequencies. High beta states (14–40 Hz) are associated with stress, irritability, anxiety, worry, insomnia, racing thoughts, and being jumpy and hypervigilant. When we’re operating in high beta, the busyness of the brain can make it harder to focus.

Gamma waves (40–120 Hz) are the fastest of your brain waves. They coincide with periods of intense learning, problem solving, and decision making. They also appear alongside alpha and theta during states of flow.

Many factors affect the composition of our brain waves, including genetics, head injuries, illnesses, trauma, stress, and even the medications we take. You can’t reprogram your brain to have more or less of a specific brainwave without treatments like neurofeedback or strict, often hours long, meditation practices, but you can make the most of what you have by engaging the right brain waves for the appropriate writing task.

Capitalizing on your brain waves

For your brain to function properly, you need to take good care of it. According to Eure’s colleague, Dr. Rusty Turner, “The best things we can all do for our brains are exercise, eat well, disconnect from technology, and have good sleep hygiene.” That’s step one. Next, try to engage the brain waves best suited for your writing session.

If you’re generating new material, spend some time in your upper alpha or low beta brain wave states. This happens when you’re relaxed and feeling both wide awake and focused. (More on how to do this in a minute.)

After generating and revising that new material into something that makes sense, you’ll need to figure out what it means, why it’s significant, and how it connects to other things you’ve written. You can’t force these insights to happen by poring over your work. That’s because the more you focus on a problem, the more you worry about it, which engages your high beta waves. Instead, step away from your work and focus on engaging your alpha waves, with the occasional help from theta. This is where morning pages can come in handy. While Julia Cameron sees them as an emptying of the trash so you can get to real writing, giving yourself permission to wander into story territory soon after waking might help you solve your work-in-progress’s biggest problems.

Meditation is often touted as the way to prep your brain for writing. That’s because meditation calms the brain and encourages alpha and theta wave brain states. But meditation doesn’t work for everyone. In fact, it can be detrimental to trauma survivors and can feel like failure for anyone whose brain has a lot of spindly high beta waves.

If this is you, skip the meditation and instead focus on breathing activities like alternate nostril breathing. This exercise will engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps with the formation of alpha waves. Other activities that can help you engage in alpha wave states include warming your hands and feet, getting a massage, taking a shower, and walking in nature.

For editing activities that require a high level of wide-awake focus, give your low beta waves free rein. If you’re getting enough sleep, all you’ll need to do is take a walk, especially on a brisk day, to wake your brain up.

If you’re working on a large-scale problem that requires deep focus, gamma waves are your ally. While the best way to access them is sustained long-form meditation, there’s a hack you can use to access this and other brain states: binaural beats.

Binaural beats are two tones set to specific frequencies, or hertz, that you listen to simultaneously. Studies show that listening to binaural beats can help you temporarily access specific brain waves, though this doesn’t teach your brain to go there on its own.

While you can purchase a binaural beat app, a simple YouTube search will give you plenty of options. To see if binaural beats are right for you, do the following:

  • Grab a set of stereo headphones.
  • Choose a playlist set to the frequency best suited to your task.
  • Listen for approximately 30 minutes while you’re doing a set task.
  • Notice how you feel. If it’s helping, keep it up. But if you feel agitated, unfocused, or depressed, that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. It just means that frequency isn’t right for you.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

PG has absolutely no idea whether the OP is potentially useful or bunk. Feel free to share your opinions in the comments.

PG searched on YouTube for binaural beats. Here’s the first video he found: