The brain is a wonderful and mysterious part of our body. If you’re anything like us, you’ve probably wondered more than once what happens to our brain during the different states of consciousness it can enter. We’ve decided to tackle this subject head-on and have put together an in-depth guide to cover all your burning questions.
In our guide, we’re going to cover how your brain responds to stimuli, what processes do and don’t occur, the activity that goes on within your mind, and much more. We’ll be explaining how the states of sleep and coma can affect your brain and what goes on inside your head during these periods.
First up, however, we’re going to be looking into meditation and how our mind functions during various states of meditation. As something of a controversial subject (many people disagree with common beliefs surrounding meditation), this is an extremely interesting area to begin in.
What happens in your mind during meditation?
For years, people have practiced the art of meditation – looking to find a peaceful place within themselves and gain inner stability. It has been a long-held belief for some time now that the activity occurring within our brain during these periods is different from when we are awake and active.
Recently, studies have suggested that meditation (specifically of the nondirective variety) can produce electrical brain activity typically associated with relaxed attention and wakefulness. We’re going to explore this peculiar phenomenon and learn about the different states our mind can enter while meditating.
Our brain is continuously functioning with some level of electrical activity. Meditation helps our mind to move between states of electrical activity and increase perception and alertness – depending on which state we are in.
These are the five main states of electrical activity that our brain will enter during various phases of meditation:
- Gamma state (30 – 100Hz): This is when our brains are most active and are in a state of hyperactivity. Your brain is at maximum stimulation, and electrical levels are at an all-time high. This is certainly not associated with meditation, and actually, prolonged gamma state can lead to nervousness and anxiety (amongst other negatives).
- Beta state (13 – 30Hz): Most of our waking day is spent in Beta state, it’s how we best function. Our mind is alert, and the prefrontal cortex is firing on all cylinders. When we’re working, thinking, planning, etc. – this is the state our mind is most likely to be in and the frequency our brain is operating on.
- Alpha state (9 – 13Hz): Alpha state is a much more relaxed phase of electrical activity within the brain. Most often, this state is achieved after an activity that helps relax the brain (like meditation). Our mind is much more balanced in this state, and we are reflective, lucid, and feel peaceful and calm.
- Theta state (4 – 8Hz): This is very often the end goal in meditation. Once our brain reaches the Theta state, we become much more aware, and our capacity for strengthened intuition and problem solving is functioning at peak performance. Much visualization and meditation are performed at this particular level of electrical activity.
- Delta state (1 – 3Hz): In meditation, scientific studies don’t yet have much information on how our brain is affected in delta state. We know that it’s the phase most commonly associated with deep sleep and is a very deep form of relaxation. It is said that higher practitioners of meditation – such as Tibetan monks with decades of experiences – can actually reach this state via meditation and outside of normal sleep.
Of course, there are many views on the effect of meditation on brain activity, and it would be dishonest to ignore the fact that some opponents of the beliefs above do exist. All parties do acknowledge that further studies are needed in the field, however.
Most recent studies have indicated that nondirective meditation is the way to go if you’re looking to enter deep (and attentive) stages of meditation. Nondirective simply means that no concentration on breathing or mantra is required (or very little, at least).
This is quite different from meditation techniques that many practitioners commonly engage in, as most classes and guides encourage focusing on breathing and repeating mantras to concentrate the mind. Seemingly, however, letting your mind wander in a spontaneous fashion is the best way to dive deeper into a more relaxed state.
If nondirective meditation is the best way to achieve peacefulness and quell the levels of electrical activity in the brain then it’s something that can be learned by anyone with a little bit of time on their hands.
Don’t worry about knowing what words to think about or what breathing techniques to use – simply sit somewhere quiet and comfortable and relax. Close your eyes and try not to focus on any one thing in particular. Merely observe your thoughts as if they are passing in front of you, without directly interfering with them or influencing them.
It’s thought that this particular state of mind can be immensely useful in visualizing solutions and solving problems. This intuitive, spontaneous problem-solving can be a brilliant way to lower the electrical activity in your brain and truly relax. Although you probably won’t reach Delta state anytime soon, if opponents of these theories are to be believed.
Whatever side of the argument you fall on, it’s important to acknowledge that much more research should be performed on the brain activity of meditation practitioners. Knowing how this art affects your mind could be immensely useful for future practitioners and help us better understand our own brains.
How does your brain perform in a coma?
Coma, in many ways, is a state of consciousness very similar to deep sleep. The main difference between coma and deep sleep is that no external stimuli (that we can perceive) can wake up the body from a coma. This means that even loud noises and aggressive sensations cannot wake up someone who has fallen into a coma.
As many of you will already be aware, entering a coma is a dire medical emergency. If someone is to fall into this state, they must be rushed to the hospital immediately (or the emergency services should be called straight away). Only trained medical staff can deal with a situation such as this as a number of procedures must be performed before the body becomes stable.
There are many traumatic events that can cause somebody to enter a coma. We’ll list a few of them here before we move on to how your brain functions during this period. Causes could be:
- Head injury
- Cardiac arrest
- A brain tumor
- Alcohol poisoning
- Drug overdose
- Kidney failure
- Liver failure
As you can see, the list of possible causes is extensive, and we’ve only covered a few of the more well-known ones. These causes are usually divided into one of two main events; intracranial (occurring within the skull) or extracranial (from an event outside of the skull).
Of course, entering the state of a coma isn’t always due to an accident. In some instances, people can be medically-induced into an artificial coma. This is usually because they are at risk of brain injury, and this is the last-chance option to save them.
These types of comas are very different from the typical variety and are brought about by doctors utilizing a controlled dose of a barbiturate drug (usually pentobarbital or thiopental). However, the patient will present as if in a coma to the untrained eye.
When your mind enters an unconscious state, the most commonly held belief is that external stimuli won’t affect your brain and won’t be received by your mind in any way, shape, or form. Recently, much like with meditation, studies have shown that this belief might not be entirely true – but not in the way that you think.
Apparently, there have been many misdiagnoses (nearly half – by some reports) in the medical field that have lumped in people living a vegetative state, or locked-in syndrome, with genuine coma sufferers. These findings were discovered through the use of MRI scans during outside stimulation to patients who were diagnosed as comatose.
What these studies found certainly shocked many, as it appears to show that some people who were previously thought to be in a comatose state actually can react to certain external stimuli. Their brains show signs of robust electrical activity, meaning that they’re not actually real comas.
When the brain enters a comatose state, activity slows down dramatically, and the reticular activated system is not firing correctly. People in a coma simply cannot receive or respond to external forces (or so we believe).
The new findings discussed above point to there existing a lower level of comatose, where minimally-conscious patients may actually be able to communicate (or at least receive outside messages through exterior stimulation).
These findings are an ethical minefield for many in the medical field as it could indicate that certain patients who were previously thought to be in a coma could actually be still functioning on a somewhat normal level – all of this hidden beneath the appearance of their brain being in a deep state of inactivity.
Currently, the Glasgow Coma Scale is one of the ways that doctors and first responders can assess what level of consciousness a patient is currently in. The scale is a straightforward points-based system. If a person scores 15 on the scale, then they can be determined to be fully conscious. Anyone on the opposite side of the spectrum will be in a deep coma.
Here are the tests that make up this scale and the points system in place:
Spontaneous – 4
To loud voice – 3
To pain – 2
None – 1
Oriented – 5
Confused/disoriented – 4
Inappropriate words – 3
Incomprehensible words – 2
None – 1
Obeys commands – 6
Localizes pain – 5
Withdraws from pain – 4
Abnormal flexion posturing – 3
Extensor posturing – 2
None – 1
Although this scale is widely accepted around the world, it is clear that some minimally-conscious patients are being misdiagnosed. Many more studies are required to fully understand how this problem can be tackled, how comatose patients can be more effectively diagnosed, and what the future holds for people in this state.
It is exciting to think about the possibilities that may arise in the future if doctors and scientists can find a way to interact with minimally-conscious patients in this form of “light-coma.” It’s also deeply worrying to think about what may be going on beneath the surface within their minds, and just how much brain activity is really happening.
What goes on in your mind while sleeping?
While we sleep, our mind switches between states much more often than during waking hours. The study of sleep has been researched and documented in a lot more detail than coma and meditation, so we have many more details about how our brain operates than in other states.
We’ll explain further below just what kind of brain activity goes on during sleep. First, let’s take a look at the various stages of sleep and what states our mind can enter throughout the night (and day):
- Early morning wakefulness – Many of you can profess experience in this particular state of sleep. When you wake up in the morning, you might feel especially sluggish, still tired, and not at your best. This is because your brain is stuck between sleep and wakefulness still. Some people experience this far more than others and can find themselves lapsing between sleep and wakefulness for extended periods of time.
- REM sleep – REM sleep (rapid-eye-movement) is the period of resting when our minds most often experience complex dreams. This is due to the high-effort “rewiring” and “archiving” of memories that is going on in our head during this state of sleep. Most of the body’s self-healing is done during this time.
- Deep sleep – The state of deep sleep is most often experienced during the first part of the night, not long after we initially fall asleep. It’s interesting to note that deep sleep is the phase of our nighttime routine when we are technically closest to being in a coma. Growth hormones are released during deep sleep, and this is when our body grows.
- Microsleep – This is one of the more peculiar states of sleep that can occur and is often experienced at late night (while extremely tired) or of a morning after a broken sleep. You’ve probably experienced it yourself at one time or another as your head jerks up on the bus when you didn’t even realize you’d been asleep for a second or two.
- Delerium – Being in a state of delirium is very similar to microsleeps and can sometimes be brought on by exceptional tiredness. The leading causes of delirium are intoxication (through narcotics – both legal and illegal – or alcohol) and elderly age. You’ll find delirious people to be in a fluctuating state of consciousness, which can be very confusing for them.
Our consciousness, during both wakefulness and sleep, is a fluid and constantly changing series of states. Many people move in and out of these levels several times during the day and night. You’ll probably already be familiar with many of the stages we listed above, but how do they affect your brain activity?
First and foremost, although we are sleeping and in a resting state, our brain is very much still awake during deep sleep. It frequently oscillates between different levels of activity, but recent studies have shown that it still has many tasks to accomplish during our sleep and can still be thought of as “awake.”
One of the most commonly accepted theories regarding brain activity during deep sleep is that our mind is performing rigorous maintenance. The primary purpose of this maintenance is thought to be a form of memory consolidation. Our brain is actively filing thoughts away and learning while we rest.
This is an extremely interesting aspect of how our mind operates during different states and provides a great insight into how it functions. By consolidating memories and actively learning while our body sleeps, the brain is ever-improving and working away during the night.
Although we have studied brain activity during sleep extensively, there is still so much left for us to learn. New and more in-depth studies are being continuously performed, and the further into the future we head, the more knowledge we’ll have on how our brain works during the various states of sleep.
Meditation, coma, sleep: The conclusion
Now that we’ve covered the various states that our mind can enter throughout life (both purposefully, naturally, and through external factors), what have we learned? Let’s look at some of the facts we’ve covered in this final conclusion and review the information we now know.
- Meditation – Our final conclusion on meditation is that it does provoke significant changes in the electrical activity occurring within the brain. Studies (of which many more are still needed) pinpoint how nondirective meditation can help our mind achieve deeper states with less electrical activity and more spontaneous problem-solving than normal wakefulness. This information is very useful to us, as it shows that meditation does have tangible, recordable benefits – aside from the ancient and modern ones which are regularly touted by its proponents. Knowing more about brain activity and function during meditation can only help further the art and open it up to a broader audience while improving the techniques commonly associated with it.
- Coma – For us, the jury is still out on the number of stimuli that the brain can receive during what appears to be comatose states. It’s an interesting thought experiment and involves a lot of ethical quandaries that must undoubtedly be dealt with more seriously in the medical field. The possibility certainly exists that there is much more about the state of coma that we need to find out before a final conclusion can be drawn. We do believe, however, that minimally-conscious (or vegetative state) patients are owed a lot more care than they already receive. If the mind truly is still functioning beneath the surface of a “coma,” then we must do all we can to further research in this field and promote more reliable scales and systems which can diagnose the state a mind is in after a traumatic event.
- Sleep – As the most well-researched and studied, sleep is definitely the state of mind that we know the most about. Even with all of this knowledge, many functions that occur during sleep are still a mystery. We do know, however, just how much effort the mind puts into growing, healing, and organizing our mind while we sleep. In the future, we can expect to see even more mysteries about brain activity during this state unravel before us. It might take years, decades, or even centuries – but sooner or later, we will fully map the mind and understand how this bizarre resting period functions.
We hope that this article has helped you better understand the functions and actions that our brain can experience during various states. Shining a light on the activity that goes on within our mind throughout our life is an important task, and we’ve tried our hardest to cover as much information as possible in this guide.
As we have previously stated, proponents and opponents of many theories and beliefs exist in hotly-contested fields and areas such as this. Brain activity during various states is an area of research that has many contrasting views.
Because of this, we have tried to be as impartial and unbiased as possible during our creation of this guide. Hopefully, you can perform further research of your own on this complicated subject before coming to a conclusion that satisfies you entirely.