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Alpha waves are one type of brain waves detected either by electroencephalography (EEG) or magnetoencephalography (MEG) and predominantly originate from the occipital lobe during wakeful relaxation with closed eyes. Alpha waves are reduced with open eyes, drowsiness and sleep. Historically, they were thought to represent the activity of the visual cortex in an idle state. More recent papers have argued that they inhibit areas of the cortex not in use, or alternatively that they play an active role in network coordination and communication. Occipital alpha waves during periods of eyes closed are the strongest EEG brain signals.
Alpha waves are present at different stages of the wake-sleep cycle. The most widely-researched is during the relaxed mental state, where the subject is at rest with eyes closed, but is not tired or asleep. This alpha activity is centered in the occipital lobe, and is presumed to originate there, although there has been recent speculation that it instead has a thalamic origin. This wave begins appearing at around four months, and is initially a frequency of 4 waves per second. The mature alpha wave, at 10 waves per second, is firmly established by age 3.
Given the alpha wave's connection with relaxed mental states, many people have latched onto the idea of utilizing this state through a technique called biofeedback training. This technique utilizes EEG to indicate to a subject or trainer when the subject is in an alpha wave state, which the subject is then instructed to remain in.
There are several different prospects of this training that are currently being explored. Arguably, the most popular one is the use of this training in meditation. Zen-trained meditation masters produce noticeably more alpha waves during meditation. This fact has led to a popular trend of biofeedback training programs for everyday stress relief.
Psychologists are hoping to use this technique to help people overcome phobias, calm down hyperactive children, and help children with stuttering problems to relax enough to practice regular speech.
One psychologist, Elmer Green, is attempting to train patients to lower their alpha waves, as he believes that, in a low-alpha, high-theta brain state, it is easier to access unconscious problems. Similar to this relaxed-state thinking, some major companies, such as Martin Marietta and Xerox, are hoping to facilitate creative thinking in their employees through biofeedback use.