The Effect of Gamma Waves on Mom-on-a-Bike Meditator
Today I had a fascinating experience, a time warp that would have presented a curious case study for any neuroscientist out there, but I was lucky enough to be a witness to it first-hand.
It happened on my daily bike ride, as I was taking my 3-year-old daughter to preschool. Her first week there went very well, she was happy, but today she cried and complained in anticipation of our separation for the entire 20 minutes that it took to get there. There are few things in the world that are harder to do for a mother than to walk away from her crying child. I kept my composure, but inside my emotions were so strong that they leaked into my prefrontal cortex—I almost started questioning my decision to sign her up for preschool.
As I was biking back home, I was listening to the Ukrainian translation of Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, an audiobook I’ve been enjoying, which ticks so many boxes of where my curiosities lie: meditation, neuroscience, mysticism, self-improvement, mind training, and so on. It has been a powerful inspiration for me to persevere with my own meditation practice.
Describing an insight a group of scientists had while analyzing the metrics they’ve collected studying long-term meditators—“all the yogis had elevated gamma oscillations”—the authors went on to describe various frequencies of EEG waves our brain produces. I was familiar with delta, theta, beta, and most of all alpha, which I focused on for extended periods while practicing various visualization techniques in my teens. However, gamma felt like a new discovery.
“Gamma, the very fastest brain wave … “
“How could it be that I had no awareness of an entire group of brain waves, even though I probably have heard the name before?” This was the question I asked myself much later. But in the moment, something entirely different happened. It was so powerful, I had to pause my book.
The word gamma triggered an episode of spontaneous time travel and sent me all the way back into my teens, when I, as an exchange student from Ukraine going to an American high school, enrolled in school theater. While my thick accent did not allow me to get any “regular” parts, I was cast as an ancient mute and deaf grandmother, a fading matriarch of a dysfunctional family. In full old age makeup, wearing robe and slippers, I eerily scraped my walker across the stage, adding tension to a particularly dramatic moment. The play was The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds by Paul Zindel.
As we get wiser, we often see art that shaped us in our youth in new light. I had not thought about my experience or the play for years. Now, on the bike rushing home, I suddenly had an epiphany about the deep symbolism of the play’s title and the focus of the main character’s science project.
Can delicate flowers survive if exposed to radiation as seeds?
Can a brilliant child grow up to be a functional, radiant adult if exposed to harmful influence of a deeply traumatized parent?
None of this was verbal. It was a string of images that flashed in a fraction of a second, a visceral realization that lit up my entire being. I started to cry, tears flowing underneath my biking glasses and flying away in the wind.
Many minutes had passed until my emotions settled and my epiphany started to integrate. I was almost home when I was ready to continue listening to the book:
”Gamma, the very fastest brain wave, occurs during moments when differing brain regions fire in harmony, like moments of insight when different elements of a mental puzzle “click” together. To get a sense of this “click,” try this: What single word can turn each of these into a compound word: sauce, pine, crab? The instant your mind comes up with the answer, your brain signal momentarily produces that distinctive gamma flare. You also elicit a short-lived gamma wave when, for instance, you imagine biting into a ripe, juicy peach and your brain draws together memories stored in different regions of the occipital, temporal, somatosensory, insular, and olfactory cortices to suddenly mesh the sight, smells, taste, feel, and sound into a single experience. For that quick moment the gamma waves from each of these cortical regions oscillate in perfect synchrony. Ordinarily gamma waves from, say, a creative insight, last no longer than a fifth of a second—not the full minute seen in the yogis.”
In a state of heightened awareness induced by exercise—riding a bike—and deep emotions stirred up by the difficult separation with my daughter at drop-off, I had experienced a gamma flare, which was triggered by hearing the word gamma itself. Needing time to integrate it, I paused the book just in time to hear the term and its definition only after I was done with the experience. The miracle of synchronicity at its best.