First a disclaimer: I am not a neuroscientist. What I know about the brain is almost all in relation to the voice. In addition, what I know is but a drop in the ocean of what is known about the brain and a speck in the Universe of what there is still to know. It is a curiosity of mine and a topic I explore but, if you are truly interested in understanding how the brain works, I invite you to find your own way down the rabbit hole. I have included a few favorite resources at the bottom of this article.
In my blog post, The Brain and the Voice dated February 2, 2018, I discussed some of the relationships between our neurology and the voice. As promised, and because a student just asked, I am doing a follow-up article on the waveforms of the brain and how we think they interact with the voice.
Think of the brainwaves as trains traveling at different speeds connecting different places in your brain. Except instead of being an actual object the “trains” are a series of electrical pulses.
Each of the waves has a different speed which is measured in hertz and a different set of functions. The way this works is complex but it can be thought of as a continuum of consciousness. The slower wave the less conscious activity and the faster the wave the more conscious activity.
Here are brief descriptions of the waves from slow to fast:
- Infra-low brainwaves: These are the slowest and probably are most responsible for brain function and underlying operations. I say probably because their slowness makes these waves hard to record. There isn’t much published about them except that they exist.
- Delta waves: These waves are the realm of dreamless sleep and deep meditation. It is where empathy lives and also where healing can take place. There is no real conscious awareness when Delta waves are dominant.
- Theta waves: Can also be a state of sleep or meditation but it is also where dreams and images come into play. Intuition, learning, and fears are all travel in this wave. You can think of it as the active part of sleep or a deeply internal part of wakefulness.
- Alpha waves: This is the wave of the resting brain. Conscious calm and being in the present. This is where mental coordination, mindfulness, and some learning happens. This is also the wave of mind/body integration.
- Beta waves are actually three different speeds of waves that operate similar functions with higher engagement and activity. This is the realm of mental processing, decision making, thinking, and things like anxiety and excitement. Most actions receive their impulse in this wave.
- Gamma waves are the realm of perception and expanded consciousness. It is the realm of higher level functions such as non-romantic love and altruism. Spirituality likely resides here as well.
The waves do not operate in isolation so even when one waveform is dominant, others will be present. Actually, the labeling of the waves as distinct at all might just be a matter of convenience since they play together all the time. Beyond brain waves, there are physical areas of the brain which govern everything including all aspects of voice use.
The primary sections of the brain related to voicing are:
The Medulla is the home of all involuntary actions including breathing, functions related to the airway, heart rate, digestion, etc. It is an important relay for somatic sensory information and for movement. The dominant wave for these functions is the Alpha wave.
The Left frontal lobe (Broca’s area) which governs the processing of speech.
The primary motor cortex which governs the processing of singing.
Importantly all nervous system impulses have to travel from the brain to the rest of the body and back. One of the most important conduits for this is the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve deserves it’s own blog post so I will be brief.
The vagus nerve allows the brain to monitor and process information about different body functions. It is what links the neck, heart, lungs, and the abdomen to the brain.
So those are some simple descriptions of some pretty complex things within your brain.
Why should you, the voice-user, care?
In the best of all possible worlds our brain is in balance and the wave patterns of the brain are efficient and stable. In this world, however, like-functions are split over differing wave patterns such the survival functions of the vocal folds, and the functions of speech and singing. All of these are controlled in different parts of the brain and depend on wave patterns to collaborate. If the waves patterns fail to fire properly this collaboration studders and/or fails altogether.
Our current social paradigm has many humans operating within hyperactive wave functions. In other words, many humans live in a state of beta wave hyperactivity causing anxiety, limiting breath, and causing imbalance. Again, this deeply impacts the connection between the survival functions of the vocal cords and the communications functions. If you have been reading the blog, you have likely figured out that I believe this stems from too much active mental stimulation and not nearly enough physical engagement.
This is why voice practice in my studio employs voice/body alignment, coordinated breathwork, and learnings from Fitzmaurice Voicework to reassert the dominance of the appropriate brain waves for each function and to relieve any high reactivity in the beta wave pattern of the brain. It is why we move and tremor as we breathe and voice.
This is where I tell you that it isn’t crucial that you focus on how the brain actually works to speak or sing well. What is important is that you invite the intention for efficiency and mindfulness to your voice production. It is important that you dance with the things that are getting in the way of healthy function. Some of those things will be physical and some of them will be psychological. This curiosity about intention and sound and willingness to physically explore these concepts while voicing are the primary practices of this studio. Exceptional communication in speech and singing is the cookie at the end.
I hope you have questions. If you do, or even if you just have something to add please leave a comment here or contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory by Stephen Porges
- Creating Mind: How the Brain Works by John E. Dowling, W. W. Norton & Company
- Neuroplasticity by Moheb Costandi, MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series, 2016
- My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor PhD
- Fitzmaurice Institute www.fitzmauriceinstitute.org
Gina Razón is the principal voice specialist at GROW Voice LLC, a full-service voice and speech studio in Boston’s Back Bay. She has over 16 years of experience both as a teacher of voice and speech, and a voraciously curious voice user. Gina has worked professionally as a classical singer for over a decade and more recently as a professional public speaker. For more information on the studio or to book Gina visit www.growvoice.com