Gamma Brainwaves: Peak Experience & The Power of Failure
Over the past few months, we’ve discussed various brainwaves and their associated performance states. By manipulating our body, mind, and environment, we can learn to enter into these performance states when the time comes. We’ve learned that while there are times to focus and execute (beta brainwaves), taking time to slow down allows us to think strategically (alpha), be creative (theta), and recover properly (delta). All of these brainwave states feed into each other to give us moments of peak performance, which are exhibited by gamma brainwaves.
Gamma brainwaves are the highest frequency brainwaves, measuring at a rate of 30–100 cycles per second (Hz). This is when various parts of the brain engage all at once to give us peak perception and function. Gamma waves appear to originate in the base of our brain, in the visual cortex, and sweep forward across our brain. Gamma states are influenced by sensory input (sight, sound, feel, taste, touch) and processes in the brain, including working memory, perception, and attention. Gamma states occur when we are in the moment, taking in information about our environment, processing that information against our established memories and experiences, all while our attention is in the here and now.
As research on these brainwaves is still relatively new, we are only just beginning to understand the things that are happening in the body and brain. However, it appears that these types of brainwaves are evident during a peak state — or flow moment. That bike ride when you forgot you were cycling, that speech when you were so dominant you lost track of yourself, or holding your child for the first time. These are all gamma wave moments.
Gamma is when we feel good and when we are operating at the limit of our capacity. One thing that gets in the way of achieving gamma states and peak moments? Fear of failure.
The fear that we will fail at something and the perceived shame associated with it, prevents us from putting our best effort towards something, or potentially not even trying at all. Fear of failure negatively impacts our performance and prevents us from reaching our potential. In fact, a study looking at elite athletes found that fear of failure was associated with psychological stress and burnout — putting athletes at risk for abandoning their sport prematurely and never realizing their potential.
Somehow, we have to get rid of our underlying belief that failure is embarrassing, a sign of weakness, or an indication that we are not cut out to succeed. People who have achieved immense success invariably say that before they got it right, they got it colossally wrong — many times. And they will point out that they were able to capitalize on those failures because they saw them as a gift, not a curse.
In order to enter into gamma brainwave states and experience peak moments, we have to embrace the idea that there is no way to achieve our potential if we don’t put ourselves in situations where we will fail and then do it again with gusto. We have to reframe failure as an essential ingredient in growth.
If you want to dive deeper into the science of brainwave states, check out my book Rest Refocus Recharge: A Guide for Optimizing your Life.
What are we finding in the research?
Researchers at the University of Manitoba were interested in determining if self-compassion can help athletes manage past failures so that their mental health and athletic performance aren’t negatively affected. Athletes’ self-compassion was assessed using a 26-item questionnaire. The researchers then had the athletes imagine a past sport failure while measuring their physiological stress (via heart rate variability) and had them assess their psychological reactivity (their behaviours, thoughts, and emotions at the time of failure).
The researchers discovered that self-compassion was associated with lower physiological stress (higher parasympathetic nervous system activation) as well as improved psychological reactions when imagining a past failure. This suggests that learning to develop self-compassion can help athletes (and all of us!) manage past failures in a healthy way and use it to their advantage.