Sleeping / Waking / Awakening
Dr. Jeffrey D. Thompson, D.C., B.F.A.
Sleep is an active process, not just the absence of wakefulness. Many of the brainwave states associated with different levels of sleep are also seen in certain states of waking consciousness as well. Awakened levels of consciousness are to waking consciousness as waking consciousness is to sleep.
Normally, with waking consciousness, the eyes are open and the brain is attending to external information processing, dealing with ordinary world events, talking, thinking, figuring, walking, driving, and generally doing things. EEG patterns of the brain’s electrical activity at these times show rapid, rhythmic discharges of electrical activity from the neurons of the brain.
These discharges are not random, but exhibit regularity and rhythmicity. In the case of the normal, externally directed attention described above, the pulses of the rhythm of these electrical discharges from the brain are rapid and of a low amplitude of electrical charge. In other words, the electrical pattern that emerges during this type of externally directed attention is rapid with a low power level.
The speed of these discharges tend to always fall within a certain pulse rate speed: 30 electrical discharges per second down to around 13 discharges per second – or cycles per second (cps), or more commonly referred to as Hertz (Hz) after the scientist who did the originally defining work on discovering these interesting little facts about the pulsing discharges of brain cells during different states of consciousness. He did this with a special, new measuring device called an “Electro-Encephalo Graph” or “EEG”. Electro: electrical activity; Encephalo: pertaining to the brain;, Graph: placing the information as pen-tracings on graph paper.
So, this first level of human consciousness we might term “waking” consciousness, has brain cell electrical discharges that pulse in rhythmic, sweeping waves of activity across the brain’s surface between 13 and 30 Hz (or times per second). It is a brain dance of electricity that sweeps across the brain in rhythmic waves. We call these rhythmic electrical waves of the brain: “brainwaves”.
Scientists, who have explored this interesting dance of the electrical waves that sweep across the brain, have noticed that different states of consciousness always have a corresponding, associated dance of electrical waves sweeping across the brain. They eventually cataloged these pulses of electrical activity into four general categories: Beta, Alpha, Theta and Delta.
Scientists love to name things with Greek letters and the like – it sounds more, well, scientific. It just wouldn’t sound right if you named them logically in English – like A, B, C and D. They couldn’t even get that straight in Greek – B, A, T and D for Beta, Alpha, Theta and Delta. As we will see later, other researchers have seen other types of brainwave activity (I’m one of those researchers!) which shows activity slower than the slowest brainwaves recognized (that was my work) and faster than the fastest brainwaves recognized and named them also after Greek letters (I’m afraid I’m guilty here as well!).
So, this more rapid 13-30 Hz pulsing of the brainwaves associated with externally directed, linear thinking of the ordinary “waking state” falls into the “Beta” category of brainwaves associated with 13-30 Hz.
When a person turns their attention inward, or closes their eyes, the electrical activity of the brain immediately changes. The electrical discharges immediately slow down and become larger in amplitude, or have more power. Consciousness has become slower, more stilled, and more reflective. The rhythmic discharges of the brain cells slow down and become larger in amplitude – have more power.
The pulsing of the brainwaves at this time falls between 13 and 7 Hz and are named “Alpha” brainwaves. This “Alpha” state of consciousness could be looked upon as inner-directed, non-linear thinking. It is still a mental state, an activity of the mental body, but inner directed – more of a “pondering” function. The Beta state could be seen as looking at the trees and the Alpha state as looking at the forest.
This is the kind of electrical activity that shows up when you go to bed and first close your eyes and begin to slowly drift down into yourself and eventually into sleep. Sleep researchers have seen that volunteers awakened from Alpha sleep have uniformly reported that they were not asleep at all, but not awake either. They were in a “twilight” state of consciousness in which their mind was open and focused on a larger picture of things – the “forest” instead of the “trees”, so to speak.
It is interesting to notice that Zazen and Zen meditation practices show a strong Alpha pattern of brainwaves appearing. In this case, whether with eyes open or closed, the mind has been brought into a state of not seeing what the eyes are looking at – the focus is on everything simultaneously. If you keep your eyes open and go into a stare at a single spot, the eyes accommodate to the stared-at object and soon cease to see it – the mind and attention are elsewhere – internalized.
At this moment, even though the eyes are open, the brainwave pattern shifts from Beta to Alpha even though the eyes are still open. Once the mind is no longer attending to the images entering the eyes from the external world, the brain behaves exactly as if the eyes were closed and the Beta brainwave function collapses and the Alpha function expands. This is what happens in an “eyes open” meditation.
There is an important, fleeting moment which usually gets passed over quickly without notice when the brainwaves go from the slowest speed of Beta and cross over into Alpha: the Beta/Alpha Bridge.
THE BETA / ALPHA BRIDGE
This is not a state mentioned in the ordinary EEG literature, but it is something I have noticed and begun working with and eventually named.
Technically, this is the first stage of sleep, when the eyes close and the Beta function collapses and the Alpha function expands. When external, linear, mental activity gives way to internal non-linear mental activity. Brainwaves slow down, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and the body’s general metabolism also slow down as well.
As these processes slow down more and more, the Alpha brain frequencies show slower brain electrical discharges at higher amplitude.
In a non-sleep state, this Beta/Alpha bridge state is the mental place the brain goes to when it becomes hyper-efficient in dealing with the task at hand, because it can focus on the details as well as the overall scope of the problem or task at the same time.
In Beta/Alpha Bridge meditation states, the mind is perfectly poised between the inner and outer worlds.
At the point when the brainwaves have slowed to the bottom of the Alpha range of frequency discharge of brain cells, at around 7 – 8 Hz, the brain goes into a completely new and different state: Theta.
The Theta brainwave state is between 7 – 3.5 Hz and is the place where dreaming takes place. When the brainwaves cross over from lowest Alpha into upper Theta, this is the moment when sleep has really begun. There are a number of unique things that take place at this moment both in the brain, central nervous system and body.
A portion of Theta sleep is the time in which dreaming sleep takes place. During this time a crucial part of the brainstem, called the Reticular Activating System (RAS) goes into a special function in which it literally closes off the muscular control signals from the brain to the body. The body becomes essentially paralyzed. Some stray electrical discharges do trickle past which accounts for minor twitching of the fingers and toes. It is also during the dreaming state that the eyes move back and forth and around under the closed eyelids in what is called Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (REM Sleep). Occasionally, at the very moment that the brain goes into the dreaming state, the RAS door has not completely closed yet in the brainstem and a major brain signal gets across and the body goes into a characteristic jerk for an instant. So, during the whole period of Theta, dreaming sleep, the entire body is essentially paralyzed and makes no movement. During Alpha sleep, on the other hand, there is a lot of movement: punching the pillow, rolling into different positions to get comfortable, adjusting the blankets, etc.
The reason the body saw fit to develop this intentional paralysis system of the body during dreaming sleep was to protect the unconscious body from harming itself by physically acting out one’s dreams. It is a symptom of a disorder of the RAS area of the brainstem, in which the door does not close at all the signals from the brain to the body, which we call “Sleep Walking”. Since the brainstem extends down from the skull to the level of the second cervical vertebrae, Chiropractic-type misalignments of the 1st and 2nd cervical vertebrae can put torque and twist pressure on these very RAS brainstem areas and be a causative factor in sleep walking.
On the other hand, upper cervical misalignments which put pressure on the RAS brainstem areas can also initiate nerve signals to the brain which jump start the sleep program in the neural cortex – since the RAS area is so intimately involved in coordinating this important area of sleep each night. This condition is known as Narcolepsy, or the abnormal falling asleep at inopportune times during the day at a moments notice. Other factors in Narcolepsy have to do with fatigue of the cellular energy system of the body – in particular the Mitochondria power house organelles of the cells.
The Theta portion of sleep is where the Emotional Body recuperates, heals and “tunes” itself for the next day. There are various levels of dream material which get processed during this time, some dreams are superficial re-hashing of the day’s events to clear them out, while deeper Theta dream states are associated with the clearing of deep emotional traumas – sometimes back to childhood. It is not so much what people are saying in a dream, but the emotional scenario of which one is a part, that defines the Theta dreaming state as an emotional state.
Dreaming is the ultimate creative exercise. You create an entire world, with all your senses, and place yourself in it so convincingly that you do not even know you are in a dream while you are in it. That is creativity!
In the non-sleep state, Theta is associated with intense creativity, visualization ability, imagination and problem-solving. Some of the most famous people in history have had their greatest moments of creative achievement and problem-solving at night and in the middle of a dream – they wake up with the full-blown answer.
In meditation, the Theta state is associated with the classic “out of the body” experience. One is no longer aware that one has a body. One is transported to a beatific place with the “Master”. In Christianity, this was the place of Holy visitation, conversing with angels, meeting with the saints, etc. In the Shamanistic traditions, this is the realm of the Shamanic “Journey”.
Let’s backtrack a bit: on the journey to Theta, we have a second important crossover point in consciousness: The Alpha/Theta Bridge.
THE ALPHA / THETA BRIDGE
This is the balance point between the Mental and Emotional bodies. It is the place where our mental belief systems and our emotional states feed one another. It is where we have the possibility of having non-attached emotional awareness at a physical level. When the King and Queen rein hand in hand in true partnership, the whole realm flowers and blossoms in harmony.
THE THETA / DELTA BRIDGE
When the Theta brainwave activity slows to the bottom-most frequencies of Theta at around 3.5 Hz, dreaming stops and the brainwaves cross over into Delta – the slowest and largest amplitude electrical activity of the neurons of the cortex. At this crossover point in brain frequencies lies the place where emotional imbalances, which express themselves in the physical body, are balanced and healed.
In the waking state, this is the place where the brain goes to access long-term memory. Usually, when you can recall a name, you concentrate harder – but this only increases the speed of brainwaves further into Beta. Where the brainwaves need to go to get this memory information is down to the Theta / Delta Bridge.
Once the sleep cycle reaches Delta, the RAS area of the brainstem releases the constraints on the communication between the brain and the body’s muscles. However, the body still remains completely still and non-moving through the whole period of Delta sleep. This is not because the body is paralyzed by the RAS, but because the body is now in it’s most quiescent, relaxed and stressed reduced state. As the brainwaves sink deeper into slower and slower Delta brainwave patterns, the body goes into the lowest blood pressure, respiration, heart rate, metabolism and body temperature it experiences. This is the time at night in which the body recuperates, heals and re-tunes itself for the next day. There are no mental processes, no emotional processes and no sense of time. This is the most difficult time to try to awaken a person sleeping.
In meditation states, this is the “Void” state or “White Light” state – a state of timeless suspension.
ECSTATIC AND EXTRAORDINARY STATES:
Classic neurophysiology, until very recently, has recognized only the four brainwave states mentioned so far: Beta, Alpha, Theta and Delta. Recently new evidence has emerged of brainwave states above the highest recognized brainwave frequencies of Beta (30 Hz). These higher-than Beta frequencies are being called Gamma Brainwaves. These Gamma brainwaves resonate at around 40 Hz and seem to be associated with the function of the brain which holographically synthesizes all the bits of individual data from various areas of the brain and fuses them all together in a higher point of view.
I began to see evidence a number of years ago, that certain of my patients were exhibiting slower-than-Delta brainwave activity. This brainwave activity seemed to be associated with states of self awareness, higher levels of insight and information, psychic abilities, out of the body experiences, etc. Many EEG machines are not even set up to measure frequencies outside the classic Beta-Alpha-Theta-Delta ranges. Once I started looking more closely at this phenomenon, I saw more and more evidence of it happening. Eventually, I named this new region of brain activity and states of consciousness associated with it: EPSILON (since this was the next Greek letter after Delta – and it sounded cool).
Later I came across references on the Internet from EEG researchers who were noticing extremely high brainwave frequencies above Gamma, at up to 100 Hz. Interestingly, they were reporting that these states seemed to be associated with states of self awareness, higher levels of insight and information, psychic abilities, out of the body experiences, etc. – word-for-word the same descriptions I was making for the Epsilon state which was an extremely slower than Delta (below 0.5 Hz) set of frequencies. I thought this was extraordinary in itself: that totally opposite speed brainwave frequencies – some at 100 Hz and others at less than 0.5 Hz – should have exactly the same states of consciousness associated with them. Since these researchers didn’t seem to have come up with a name for these high-range brain frequency states, I named them: HyperGamma. Later information showed new evidence of frequencies even higher than this, at almost 200 Hz. These I have named: Lambda brainwave frequencies and states of consciousness.
My later realization was that these HyperGamma / Lambda and my Epsilon frequencies, must be linked together in a circular relationship – where, if you looked with a magnifying glass at an extremely slow Epsilon brain frequency, you would see hidden within it a modulation frequency of 100 – 200 Hz. This being so, if you were to stand back far enough from an extremely fast 200 Hz brainwave frequency, you would see that is it riding on the crest of a slow motion modulating wave of Epsilon.
I believe it is this Epsilon state of consciousness which is the state Yogi’s go into when they achieve states of “suspended animation” – where western medical doctors can perceive no heart beat, respiration or pulse. I think that the HyperGamma and Lambda states of consciousness are probably the states associated with the ability of certain sects of Tibetan monks who can mediate in the Himalayan Mountains in sub-zero temperatures with scanty clothing and melt the snow all around them.
But how are we to know that we are not just dreaming this experience we are having right now? Pinch ourselves on the arm to wake up? I’m afraid it would just be dream fingers pinching a dream arm and dreaming that the pain was not a dream. Perhaps we might even dream that we woke up from this dream…