Scientists Say: Brainwaves

These are patterns of electrical activity produced by the brain’s neurons

An EEG records brainwaves, rhythms of electrical activity caused by neurons in the brain.

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Brainwaves (noun, “BRANE-WAVES”)

This word describes patterns of the brain’s electrical activity. This activity comes from the brain’s nerve cells, called neurons. When neurons communicate, they make tiny zaps of electricity. This is called “firing.” Some neurons fire when a person is thinking. Other neurons relate to vision, firing when a person looks at a face or detects an object. Still others coordinate motion. There are billions of neurons in the human brain. The combined electrical activity of all those neurons creates patterns that look like spikes or waves. 

Scientists can eavesdrop on brainwaves with sensors that detect electrical activity. Such sensors can be attached to a cap, helmet or headband. One technique that detects and records brainwaves is called EEG. That’s short for electroencephalograph (Ee-LEK-tro-en-SEF-uh-lo-graf). EEG recordings can help scientists connect what a person is doing with electrical activity in the brain.

For example, scientists snooped on the brains of children as they looked at words while learning to read. From the kids’ brainwaves, scientists could see the steps in reading unfold in the brain. Some signals related to when students identified letters. Other signals popped up when students grouped letters into sounds. Still others appeared when kids grasped the word’s meaning.

In a sentence

When students are paying attention together, their brainwaves sync up.

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Carolyn Wilke is a staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering. Carolyn enjoys writing about chemistry, microbes and the environment. She also loves playing with her cat.

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