Article image

Brain waves move in opposite directions to make memories and to remember

Ever wondered how you can juggle a million thoughts in your head and still remember your childhood vacation? It turns out, your brain uses a special kind of wave to sort through it all. 

A new study from Columbia Engineering sheds light on brain waves, revealing a fascinating two-way street for memory creation and retrieval.

Brain waves and their functioning

Our brains are made up of billions of nerve cells called neurons that talk to each other using electrical signals. These chats create patterns of activity that we call brain waves. The kind of brain wave depends on how fast these signals are firing. 

There are five main types of brain waves: delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma. Delta waves are the slowest and happen during deep sleep. 

Theta waves are a bit faster and are linked to light sleep, relaxation, and dreaming. Alpha waves are present when we’re relaxed and calm, especially if our eyes are closed. 

Beta waves are fast and indicate that we’re actively thinking, focused, or alert. Gamma waves are the fastest and are involved in things like learning and problem-solving

Brain waves are important because they can tell us a lot about what’s going on in our brains. If the patterns are different from usual, it could be a sign of a cognitive imbalance. 

Discovery of brain’s traveling waves

Scientists studying memory recruited people with epilepsy who had special electrodes implanted in their brains. This allowed the researchers to directly measure brain activity as the participants memorized and recalled words or letters. 

The experts focused on a specific type of brain wave called a “traveling wave” and tracked how it moved across the brain’s surface. The interesting finding was that these waves traveled in one direction when a memory was created and in the other direction when it was recalled. 

“These findings shed light on the mechanisms that underlie memory processing. More broadly, they help us better understand how the brain supports a wide range of behaviors that involve precisely coordinated interactions between brain regions,” said study co-author Uma R. Mohan, a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Brain regions working together

When we form new memories, brain waves flow from the back to the front of the brain. This could be how the brain puts together and stores new experiences. This direction might help different brain regions work together to process and remember information.

On the other hand, when we remember something, the brain waves move in the opposite direction, from front to back. This might help activate stored information and bring it to our conscious mind

The process could be like replaying the connections between brain cells that were formed when the memory was first created, allowing us to retrieve the memory.

Understanding the pattern 

Our brains form memories in steps. When we learn something new, like a recipe, different parts of the brain work together. 

One area figures out the words we read (reading comprehension), another creates a picture of the finished dish (visual imagery), and another remembers the steps involved (procedural memory). 

As we focus on memorizing the recipe, a wave of brain activity travels from the back, where we process visuals and spatial information, to the front, where memories are solidified. This direction of movement, from back to front, helps encode the information into a usable memory.

Recalling a memory works the other way around. To cook that dish from memory, a wave of brain activity travels in the opposite direction – from the front of the brain, where the memory is stored, back to the visual and procedural areas that were first involved in learning. This reverse movement, from front to back, helps retrieve the stored recipe. 

Brains traveling waves in healthcare

This research has the potential to revolutionize healthcare, especially for memory-related conditions. “We think the work may lead to new approaches for interfacing with the brain. By measuring the direction that a person’s brain waves move, we may be able to predict their behavior,” explained lead researcher Professor Joshua Jacobs.

In the future, doctors might be able to predict memory problems or certain behaviors by studying brain wave patterns. This could lead to earlier diagnosis and possibly even treatments that slow down or lessen memory decline symptoms.

The possibilities get even more exciting. Scientists might be able to directly influence brain waves to improve memory or treat memory problems entirely. Imagine a treatment that adjusts brain wave activity to fix imbalances that cause memory issues. 

This type of treatment could be life-changing for millions who suffer from memory loss, Alzheimer’s, and other brain disorders. It could give them back more independence and improve their quality of life.

The study is published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day