Surfing the Alpha Waves

Hokusai - The Great Wave at KanagawaLong before Covey and Carnegie and other gurus stuck a pin through highly successful people and dissected them, many people (equally as sensible) long ago uttered the essential truth that success was a by-product of three different character traits: drive, discipline and imagination. Now, drive is something spawned by desire, a perfectly natural human urge -- you feel it, don't you? And every productivity maven out there tells you how to be disciplined: use a calendar this way, an action list that way, a project outline here, a QA/QC process there, a mission statement on the top, and a project post-mortem/ evaluation at the bottom. Thank you very much, and you can buy my workbooks for a mere $299 to increase your efficiency another 14.8%!

But where does imagination come from? Well, that's the hard part, isn't it? Nobody can tell you how to be imaginative. There's no tricks, no special lists, no simple steps leading 1-2-3 to a highly-developed right brain hemisphere. You either got it, or you don't, right?

To that question, I'd answer a firm and unequivocal "Wrong!" We all got it... the question is how to find it. And one of the best ways to find it? Surf your alpha waves.

Back in the 1920's, the German psychiatrist Hans Berger (not to be confused with the slab of cow between two buns) first demonstrated the existence of electrical activity within the brain. Largely ignored by his peers (actually, he was called a "crank" among other things) his work led to the discovery of the various frequencies of brain waves, including what he referred to as alpha waves.

Now, during most of our day, while we become active, walk around, face our list of tasks and generally get things done, we are experiencing beta waves. These are small, rapid patterns indicating stress, busy activities and various degrees of anxiety. All well and good, but they're not conducive to stimulating creative thought: in fact, they are usually found to hamper the imagination, forcing us into a reactive mode of sorts.

Alpha waves, on the other hand, tend to "turn on" our creativity. You've no doubt experienced those elusive semi-relaxed moments when you're struck by inventive ideas, innovative solutions, and entirely new ways of looking at the same old things? Those little satori flashes of enlightenment when a new and exciting path is revealed? Well, you were probably surfing your alpha waves.

Now, alpha waves are naturally most dominant first thing in the morning. Many creative types have realised this: early morning hours are often the time when the door to the subconscious is unlocked and the ideas escape and run freely. If you cruise these frequencies and continue without interruption --without triggering the beta waves-- then you might see insights and illuminations for a long while indeed.

But once you get swept into the higher beta frequencies, sorry, game over: you're now poised to face the struggles of the day, and those ingenious little creatures running rampant are now chained and silenced for the duration, lest they get in the way of getting real work done. How many of us have started the morning rushing head-first and enthusiastically into a project with the mind supercharged and bubbling with genius, then face a grueling meeting, take time to answer the backlog of email, or take a coffee break, only to find that we cannot slip back into the same inspired thoughts and productive rhythms? We've lost the wave.

So how do we get unstuck from those mundane beta frequencies, and catch the alpha ones again? Everybody's brain behaves differently, of course, but here are a few things you can try to recapture them:

  • Avoid stressful experiences first thing in the morning, and stay as far away from soul-sucking email, idle surfing, routine chores or status meetings as possible. Instead, take the opportunity to brainstorm about your projects, or work on something creative.
  • When you find yourself tripping across good ideas, don't stop! You're surfing now. Keep them going them as long as you can by generating (and getting excited by) new concepts.
  • Some people, including Dorothea Brande (in the classic book Becoming a Writer), claim it's best to get up a half-hour earlier in the morning when you want to hit a creative streak.
  • Lie down on the couch or floor, or lay back in a comfy chair, and close your eyes. (This latter bit is especially important.) Take a few deep, slow breaths and then think about your project, or a phrase, or a story idea, or whatever you want, but don't open your eyes until you start to get ideas. Then don't disturb the flow.
  • Take a short, timed nap. We often experience alpha frequencies with light dream sleep. Once the alarm goes, start with free-flow of uninhibited ideas. Ride what comes out, whether it's pertinent or sensible or not.
  • Meditation (such as zazen), yoga, or the act of deep breathing ("belly breaths") in quiet surroundings can bring us to that necessary and relaxed state of mind, too. These are skills requiring a bit of practise, but can be done at almost any time of day.
  • Drowsiness is an important factor in attaining alpha frequencies, and while some people are not "morning people" (myself included) they find that as the evening wears on, their creativity can peak. This wave can be caught, of course, but only till exhaustion hits and the brain becomes muddled or slow. Then go to bed.
  • Other people find that certain relaxation techniques can work wonders to stimulate alpha waves. These include white noise, rainforest or thunderstorm CDs, dim coloured lights, soft classical music or jazz, contemplating a natural object, biofeedback machines, Gregorian chants, a chapter from an inspirational book, a quick jog followed by a hot shower, crossword puzzles, or mild incense. High on the list: bubble baths. (*ahem* *grunt* *manly muttering*)

So back to the three traits. You're got your drive, you're working on your discipline. Now, how about those ideas that sprang to life as you were jumping into the shower, only to vanish when you slammed head-on into your appointment schedule? Or those clever little thoughts that melted into the air like smoke once you saw that urgent email or the teetering pile rising precariously from your inbox?

Tomorrow, book a little time to yourself --the earlier the better-- and sit down with a plain old piece of paper and a pencil. Turn off the computer. Lean back, close your eyes, think of your project. Don't writing anything yet, or focus on the paper. Ask yourself a question like, "If I had no restrictions at all, where could I take this?" (A line from a poem, or an Oblique Strategy, might also work wonders.) When an idea hits, bend forward, quickly jot down a sentence or some keywords, then lean back again and close your eyes once more. Keep doing this until you've found an idea you're excited about and want to act upon, or until external pressures make their demands on your time. Above all, try to stay relaxed: when your nerves or muscles are knotted, you're thinking only of "must-do," not "maybe." The longer you remain calm and collected, the longer your imagination can flow. Let it continue into your work day, if you can.

With practice, starting and riding alpha waves can get far easier: creative minds often learn how best to trigger them, frequently through some sort of familiar ritual like sipping on a cup of herbal tea while journal-writing for a half-hour, or doodling at breakfast while listening to the birds or traffic outside, or pacing around the coffee pot musing about philosophy or art or bizarre cultural issues or "that strange person" you encountered the other day (or just about anything besides pressures and finances). Of course, many of these people have never heard of alpha waves... it's just "the thing they do" to get started. Experiment with the techniques above to help figure out what works best for you.

However you do trigger your alpha waves, the basic idea is to get --and stay-- on a creative roll, to ride the waves as you begin your productive cycle, to catch the swell of ingenuity that carries along your most inspired moments as long as possible, and to stay clear of those stormy activities and stresses that sweep us into higher frequencies. This method of letting your imagination flow is not a kludge, nor a life hack, nor any sort of trick: it's just the natural way our brains work. It's simply a matter of knowing when --and how-- to work with that part of our minds and let loose the waters of creativity.

Drive, discipline and imagination: all the components are within your reach. Don't believe otherwise.

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Alpha Waves


All of the "what's" you cite ring true with me: the creativity early in the morning, the soul-sucking email and idle surfing that can kill the whole rest of the day, the creativity burst an hour or two before bed. I just never connected them to the why, or more importantly, to the how. I *will* try many of these techniques ASAP.

BTW, I find that sometimes just doing GTD reviews triggers something close to this kind of state. I think that it is from looking at my projects at a high level, not stressing over the niggling little details and grunt work. The combined effect of that period of free creativity with the concrete results of the GTD review and planning itself can lead to a higher level of productive work for the whole day and even into the next.

Also, when I am in a solid "beta wave" rut, I find that not only does it inhibit creativity, it even inhibits conscious attempts at breaking out of them into doing something that can create an alpha state. It's like my beta brain is saying "there's no time for fun and games, we've got work to do". Except that in that state, often very little work gets done anyway.

Thanks for putting this all together.

Inspiration for the imagination

What a great article Doug! Thank you so much.

Speaking for myself, I've always been a "morning person", and for several years have got up earlier than I need to because I find I can be very productive during those quiet times when the rest of the world is asleep. It's never occurred to me to make a deliberate attempt to go with the flow of creativity at this time of day though. It's definitely something I'm going to try now though.

Neal |