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The Coherence Effect

Are coherent brain waves simply a matter of good genetics? Or can they be developed?

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What mechanism allows one executive to see a business opportunity that others completely miss, or allows a lawyer to draw a creative analogy that makes a winning argument in his client’s case? We marvel at how some are able to do this and wish our own brains acted in the same way. Now, however, the mechanism that allows a person to see these connections is starting to be understood by brain researchers.

In 1949, Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb wrote the now famous book, The Organization of Behavior. It proposed theories about brain functioning that were speculative in their time, but which have now been demonstrated to be true and have come to be known as “Hebb’s Rule.” It says that there must be extensive connections among distant brain areas in order to process inputs to the brain, generate appropriate responses, and, in general, think clearly and be successful in life. Why are connections between distant brain areas important?

Different parts of the brain do different things. One part is responsible for memory, one part for moral reasoning, one for logical reasoning, one for processing visual images, several parts for creativity, and so on. And because problem solving requires many different areas of the brain to work together, the different areas need to be connected in order to communicate with each other.

How does this communication take place? In recent years scientists have concluded that the catalyst allowing different brain areas to effectively communicate with each other is coherence. Dr. Friedhelm Hummel of the Department of Neurology at the Medical Center at Hamburg University states that the brain areas “strengthen their connections by repeated synchronous [or coherent] activation.”

When we perceive something in the way we should perceive it, Hummel says that large numbers of neurons in different parts of the brain are “firing in synchrony.”

In other words, they are firing in the same way at the same time. When there is this synchronous firing or activation between distant brain areas, we don’t just see random shapes with our eyes; instead, a part of the brain is communicating with another part and we recognize that the shapes are persons, and the lights have colors, and the letters form words, and so on.

Harvard Medical School Professor of Psychiatry Robert W. McCarley says that “synchronized [brain] rhythms characterize conscious thought, perception and problem solving” and that “our brains need a coherence of firing to organize perception and analysis of data from the world around us.”

Alarik Arenander, PhD, Director of the Brain Research Institute in Iowa, says, “We have these billions of brain cells and trillions of synapses in the brain, and they form units or assemblies that are all oscillating. And, most importantly, only coherent oscillating assemblies of brain cells can effectively communicate with each other. It is only when cells work together in the same rhythm that effective information flow occurs in the brain.”

The Kind of Coherence Most Important to Success

Dr. Hummel and his colleagues from Hamburg University, mentioned above, have done research that goes beyond just validating the general principle that synchrony or coherence between different areas of the brain is important to success. They designed a test to determine what kind of brain coherence in ordinary subjects was most crucial to enhanced performance. They measured the brain waves of the subjects in their study by placing twenty-eight electrodes across the scalp to sense the activity of many different brain areas. The subjects were then given a task to determine if a configuration of dots they were shown visually matched a configuration of raised dots in a Braille text that they touched. Our sight and touch centers are in different parts of the brain so the researchers theorized that there would have to be good communication between those distant brain areas to be successful in quickly determining a match. They found that those subjects with the greatest alpha brain wave coherence (alpha waves are slow brain waves associated with being alert and relaxed) between these distant brain areas were most successful at the task. Conversely, where performance was not successful, there was the least amount of alpha wave coherence. The researchers’ concluded that the more coherence in the brain, and especially alpha coherence, the better the performance.

Another study by Dr. Harald Harung, a Norwegian researcher and academic, and  Dr. Fred Travis, Director of the Center for Brain, Consciousness, and Cognition at Maharishi International University in Iowa, looked at the brains of 33 world-class athletes and 20 top managers. They compared the brains of these top performers to those of athletes who were less successful and to mid-level managers.  The elite athletes were from the National Olympic Training Center and Norwegian School of Sports Sciences and had placed in the top ten in major competitions like the Olympic Games and the World Cup. The control group of athletes competed regularly in competitions but did not normally place in the top 50 percent in Norwegian championships.

Harung and Travis measured brain wave coherence in the front of the brain, and  the strength of the slow alpha brain waves over the whole brain, as well as another measure of the brain’s efficiency that  indicates whether the brain gets active at the appropriate times. These three measures were combined into a Brain Integration Scale. The research showed the world-class athletes and top managers had significantly more coherent and efficient brains. The researchers say the world class performers do best because they are calm and alert at the same time, and they aren’t “distracted by pressure or chaos.”

Harung and Travis measured coherence in the front of the brain since this area (the prefrontal cortex) is responsible for analytical and creative thinking, and is also the part of the brain that allows us to pay attention and focus on goals. It is said to be the brain’s conductor or chief executive. It has extensive physical connections with all the other areas of the brain, and both influences these other areas and takes information from them. 

Drs.  Travis and Arenander and their colleagues have done significant research showing that synchronous or coherent brain rhythms are associated with improved concept learning, creativity, and self-esteem, as well as decreased anxiety, depression, and stress, while  a significant lack of synchrony in our brain cells, results in various disorders, including autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease.

This raises the question of whether coherent brain waves are simply a matter of good genetics, or whether it can be developed, and if so, how?

Perhaps not unexpectedly there are already devices being marketed to electrically stimulate the brain in an effort to generate coherence.  In a 2017 study at Boston University, the researchers used electrodes attached to a cap placed on the scalp to give an electrical charge to two areas of the brain at the same time, while measuring the slow theta brain waves of  the subjects in the study. The researchers found that by electrically stimulating the two frontal areas at the same time, it increased the brain wave coherence between the two areas at the theta frequency, and the participants in the study learned faster, made fewer errors, and when they did make errors, they corrected them more accurately. The change was dramatic enough that after seeing their results, some of the students asked if they could wear the electrode caps and give themselves electrical charges during exams./9 This is, of course, not very practical and side effects have been noted from electrically stimulating the brain including mild headaches, nausea, and fatigue.

More promising is meditation to generate brain wave coherence. Meditation advocates say the brain can be induced to function better, but is this just wishful thinking or hype, and is any brain wave coherence actually produced by the different meditation programs? A summary study by Travis and a colleague published in 2010 in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, and Travis’ 2019 follow-up research, show that at least certain forms of meditation can produce brain wave coherence. There are many studies showing that even relatively new practitioners of the Transcendental Meditation technique generate significant slow alpha brain wave coherence in the front of the brain both during their practice of meditation and afterward.

Their research also uncovered one study showing very experienced Zen Buddhist priests generated alpha coherence in the front of the brain, and two studies showing that individuals practicing Sahaja meditation produced coherence in theta waves (also slow brain wave activity).

Many individuals, of course, have significant brain wave coherence whether they meditate or not. We need some brain coherence for rational thought. But developing  brain coherence  may become an  important human resource tool. We should expect more studies and continued interest in this area.

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