Being in the “zone” – it’s all about brain waves
What does it mean when athletes “get in the zone”?
We hear at times athletes say that they get into the “zone” when participating in their sport. They explain it as a mental state where time seems to slow down and they are completely focused on the task at hand. What is going on with these athletes? The answer lies in the brain, namely the brain waves that are produced during those activities.
The brain is composed of cells called neurons and these control bodily functions, allow us to analyze the world, compose thoughts and determine our personality. Neurons communicate with one another by releasing what is known as action potentials, which are minute electrical signals. A specialized instrument called an electroencephalogram (EEG) can detect the electrical signals of the brain. When neurons produce signals that have certain rhythmic patterns, the EEG records these as brain waves. It was discovered that the brain produces 5 different types of brain waves that influence a person’s ability to process information, remain attentive; they can even affect a person’s emotional state.
- Gamma Waves
- Higher processing and cognitive functioning; important for learning, memory and information processing.
- Beta Waves
- Logical thinking, allows completion of work-based tasks; caffeine and stimulants can arouse this wave activity.
- Alpha Waves
- Gap between conscious and unconscious thinking; calms us and relaxes us.
- Theta Waves
- Involved in daydreaming and sleep; meditation is in this state.
- Delta Waves
- Slowest recorded brain waves involve deep levels of relaxation and restorative sleep; found more in children and decreases as we age.
It is important to note that individuals will fluctuate from one brain wave pattern to another over the course of a day. Each brain wave pattern allows us to do certain things but scientists have shown that if an individual remains within a wave pattern too long, it can lead to certain cognitive and emotional issues.
So how do brain waves explain athletes being in the “zone”? What is happening is that their brains are producing Alpha and Theta waves and alternate between these two wave forms. They enter what is known as a flow state, a mental state where an individual is completely immersed and focused in their activity, enjoys it and feels energized. Essentially what is happening is that the portion of the brain that is involved with decision making (i.e., the frontal lobe) is shut off and the brain releases chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins provide an analgesic effect, thereby inducing a feeling of pleasure and enhancing performance. This explains how athletes can perform seemingly incredible feats and often feel great after performing.
Does this mean that one needs to run marathons or skydive in order to achieve a flow state? Not at all. Flow state can be achieved in many different ways such as participating in activities such as yoga, walking, sewing, listening to music, gardening and meditation. There are tools available to help individuals practice in achieving a flow state. These biofeedback tools allow individuals to see real-time displays of their brain activity so they can self-regulate and reach a flow state. So anyone can get into the “zone”—it is only a matter of practice. Just like athletes practice to reach the pinnacle of their sport, you too can practice to reach a flow state.