EAP for ADD (Part 3): Brain Structure, Brainwaves, & Arousal Level: A 3-Part Lesson for Success

In previous blogs, we identified the five brainwave classifications and how equine-assisted therapies re-organize brain waves, producing behavior change.

Today, we are going to go a little deeper into how the brain works.

Brain Function and Structure

The brain has four basic functions:

  1. Getting information (sensory cortex)
  2. Making meaning of information (back integrative cortex)
  3. Creating new ideas (front integrative cortex)
  4. Acting on ideas (motor cortex)

Every brain has, on average, a hundred billion cells. These cells communicate with each other across the synapse using various chemicals that the brain produces to help itself with this communication. Each brain has, on average, 10,000,000,000,000 connections or 10 to the 13th power synapses.

These synapses, or connections, are organized into neural networks which allow us to do all that we do. Everything you sense or do creates the next input for the brain. The brain is constantly passing information all around from cell to cell by “firing” information across the synapse using electricity created by brain chemicals.

The speed with which the cells fire is called the frequency. The higher the frequency, the higher the level of brain arousal and focus.


We learned about brainwaves in the last blog post.

If you recall, the term brainwaves refers to a series of electrochemical impulses created by your brain. It uses a combination of specific chemicals and electrical impulses to create a pattern of communication between the cells in your brain.

Brainwave activity is separated into five categories depending on the speed or frequency of the movement repetitions per second. Here is a review of the different types of brainwaves:

  1. Delta. These brain waves are the slowest brainwaves and are present primarily during sleep or when in a non-aroused state.
  2. Theta. Theta waves are present when we are daydreaming or fantasizing and are commonly associated with creativity and intuition. Interestingly, the lower range of Theta waves are present during the time between waking and sleep when we are feeling very calm, serene and in drifty states.
  3. Alpha. These brainwaves are associated with a state of relaxation. Alpha waves will occur when our brains shift into a relaxed and disengaged or idle state. By closing our eyes and picturing something peaceful, we will quickly increase our Alpha brainwaves.
  4. Beta. Beta waves are present when we are in a state of mental or intellectual activity and outward focus, like when we are thinking, problem-solving, processing information or feeling anxious.
  5. Gamma. Gamma waves are the fastest measured brainwaves and are considered essential for information and sensory-binding and are present during cognitive thought when the brain is processing and linking information from all parts of the brain.

Arousal Level

There are times in the average day when each frequency is beneficial. We need a range of focus and arousal levels to successfully get through our day and the flexibility to shift when we need to.

According to what is known as the “Yerkes-Dodson Law,” performance increases with physiological or mental arousal (stress), but only up to a point. When the level of stress becomes too high, performance decreases.

With simple tasks, a low level of arousal is adequate.
With slightly more complex tasks, you need a slightly more than medium arousal and focus.

  • If your arousal level is too low you may become drowsy, begin to daydream, or even snore.
  • If your arousal level is too high you may become impatient, begin to fidget or squirm.

Performing complex tasks requires maintaining lower than average arousal and sustained, focused attention.

  • If your arousal level is too low, you may feel overwhelmed and want to quit.
  • If your arousal level is too high you may make careless errors, become restless, hyper, anxious or bored.

The key to best performance is a balance between arousal and focus levels.

The arousal and focus levels need to be appropriate to the task. The key is to be able to regulate arousal and flow with the situation. But sometimes our brains get stuck in unhelpful arousal patterns or can’t shift to meet the needs of a new situation.

So, how do we maintain that balance? That is the focus of EAP for ADD Part 4.