Why being around water is so good for our psyches.
Blue Mind: A mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peace, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment.
When Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick, found himself “growing grim about the mouth” and in need of “driving off the spleen,” he took to the sea.
We could all learn something from Ishmael.
Modern life may be even tougher than 19th-century Nantucket. We experience chronic stress. Monkey mind. Directed attention fatigue. Our “always on” lifestyle can eventually result in memory problems, poor judgment, anxiety, depression, and overreliance on alcohol and drugs for relaxation. Chronic stress damages the cardiovascular, immune, digestive, nervous, and musculoskeletal systems. It lowers levels of serotonin and dopamine, making us feel exhausted and down.
And, of course, the knowledge that our way of living is so unhealthy is yet another source of stress.
Still, what if taking to the sea — or even just the bathtub — could make a significant difference in our well-being? What if spending time in or near water was as effective as (and more immediate than) an antidepressant? What if your doctor handed you a prescription that read, “Take two waves, a beach walk, and some flowing river, and call me in the morning”?
According to current research in cognitive neuroscience (which now echoes much historical wisdom), when you spend time around water, what happens is very good indeed.
From Red Mind to Blue Mind
As a marine biologist and ocean-conservancy researcher, I host a conference each year called Blue Mind. Our goal is to understand the effects of water on the human psyche.
Researchers look carefully at studies detailing the calming effect of nature on the human mind, and they find over and over that water helps amplify nature’s soothing, healing qualities.
We use the term “Blue Mind” to describe this state of water-associated peace. It’s in contrast to “Red Mind,” which neuroscientist Catherine Franssen, PhD, describes as an “edgy high, characterized by stress, anxiety, fear, and maybe even a little bit of anger and despair.”
To be fair, the amped-up state of Red Mind is not always bad. Accessed constructively, Red Mind can help us learn to evaluate and reduce stressors in our lives. Franssen was an avid skydiver in her earlier years and realized that jumping out of planes on the weekend helped her feel more peaceful during the week. “I learned what was important and not to sweat the small stuff,” she says.
Most of us, however, aren’t quite ready to dial down our stress response by jumping out of planes. Time in nature is an easier solution. Especially time in, on, or near water.
This Is Your Brain on Water
What is it about the natural environment — specifically a watery environment — that provides such “rest” for the brain?
The brain is always trying to record and interpret the meaning of things and events, according to Michael Merzenich, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. The brain adapts its perceptual model continually to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information in its surroundings. “You can think of it as normalizing the background,” Merzenich explains.
In a natural environment on or near water, there’s a high degree of predictability — unlike a busy street, a body of water is largely the same from moment to moment. The background we see is fairly controlled, which allows part of the brain to relax.
Against that consistent background, the brain continues to search for something that wasn’t there before, since the essence of survival is the correct interpretation of things that don’t fit in the landscape. When the brain notices a disturbance on the surface (like a wave or a water bird), there’s a sense of surprise and novelty, which is accompanied by a pleasurable hit of dopamine.
Because bodies of water change and stay the same simultaneously, we experience both soothing familiarity and stimulating novelty when we look at them. This is regularity without monotony, the perfect recipe for triggering a state of involuntary attention in which the brain’s default network — essential to creativity and problem solving — gets triggered. This dreamy state of involuntary attention is a key characteristic of Blue Mind.
The good news is that we can access Blue Mind anywhere. It might be easiest at the beach, with the abundance of negatively charged ions in that atmosphere (which studies have found to lower blood lactate levels and elevate mood), but there are plenty of other ways to interact with water that allow us to receive its benefits. Read on for a few ways to get more water into your life.
Take a Bath
“There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure,” wrote poet Sylvia Plath, “but I don’t know many of them.”
Most of us have experienced some version of “immersion therapy”: the hot shower that wakes you up or unknots your body at the end of a long day; the hot-and-cold contrast baths used by athletes to ease strained muscles; or the delight of a long soak in a tub with Epsom salts and essential oils.
As far back as the ancient Egyptian, Indian, and Roman civilizations, we have therapeutically immersed ourselves in water. In the Middle Ages and beyond, places such as Baden-Baden and Evian touted the physical and mental benefits of drinking and bathing in local waters.
There are now studies to prove what humans have known all along: Immersion in water reduces stress, partly by balancing the flux between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. A 2006 study found that spa bathing significantly reduced levels of salivary cortisol in college students. Other studies have found that hot tubs and five-minute hot showers can measurably lower anxiety levels. And hydrotherapy was shown to help reduce the psychological stress and physical symptoms of a group of 139 people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Any avid angler will tell you that fishing is about a lot more than just catching fish. It may be relaxing, but it’s not passive. When we’re in a boat with a fishing rod, we have to interact with the water and the environment. It can be a challenge to master these skills, and it distracts us in the best sort of way — we think about little else than what is in front of us. This state of focus is a world away from Red Mind worries.
Now studies have found that the calming influence of fishing is powerful enough to help heal the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder.
Since 2007, an organization called Heroes on the Water (HOW) has helped more than 3,000 wounded warriors and veterans to relax, rehabilitate, and reintegrate by taking them kayak fishing. The sport provides triple therapy: physical (paddling and fishing), occupational (learning new skills), and mental (thanks to the freedom and relaxation of being on the water).
“I know when I’m out there on the water, all the crap in my life goes away,” says Jim Dolan, HOW’s founder. “So I figure it’s the same for them.”
The positive effects of being on the water are even strong enough to help break the cycle of traumatic recall, says neurologist John Hart, MD, medical science director of the Center for Brain Health in Dallas.
“Water impacts all five senses at the same time with a positive, powerful image and memory,” he says. “The good memories from a day on the water help override bad memories that haunt someone and possibly help crack that shell, letting them rejoin the world.”
Drink Some Water
It’s one thing to be psychologically in need of some Blue Mind, but if you’re physically parched, you can’t do much of anything at all.
The human body is 60 to 78 percent water, and the brain itself is about 80 percent water by volume. So it’s no surprise that consuming enough water is a requirement of healthy brain function.
Even mild dehydration can affect attention, psychomotor, and regulatory functions, as well as thought and perception. It’s also been shown to decrease reaction times in working memory, lower alertness and concentration, and increase fatigue and anxiety. There is even some evidence from studies done on rats that cognitive impairment from dehydration may not be completely reversible, due to cell-level damage.
(For more on the benefits of good hydration, see “Drink to Your Health“.)
Even the most landlocked among us can usually find our way to a lake, stream, or pool, and swimming is an excellent way to get your Blue Mind on.
The feel-good effects of swimming are similar to the “relaxation response” triggered by activities like hatha yoga. In swimming, the muscles are constantly stretching and relaxing, and this movement is accompanied by deep rhythmic breathing, all of which helps put swimmers in a quasi-meditative state.
Like other forms of aerobic exercise, swimming stimulates the release of endorphins and endocannabinoids (the brain’s natural painkilling substances), and these reduce the brain’s stress and anxiety response.
Finally, swimming builds brain strength even as it relaxes the mind. We may spend our first nine months in the “water” of the womb, and we are born with basic abilities to kick in the water, but the crawl and sidestroke are skills we learn. This means that the combination of cognitive effort and aerobic exercise involved in swimming can provide the brain with the satisfying, stress-reducing feeling of “flow” that comes with the practice of an embodied skill.
Learn to Surf
“Surfer’s stoke” describes the blissful, Zen-like state that comes with catching and riding waves. This natural high is addictive enough that some people will quit their jobs, devote themselves to surfing, and call it a life.
It’s also powerful enough to help people recover from addictions that are far more damaging.
Today, programs like Surfing to Recovery and FleaHab in California (run by pro surfer and recovering addict Darryl “Flea” Virostko) use surfing to “replace the high of drugs with the endorphins of exercise,” as Virostko explains on his website.
In these cases, healing on the water actually comes from replacing the excitement of addictive drugs with the natural dopamine high produced by surfing, whitewater kayaking, sailing, or competitive paddleboarding. Surfing and similar sports satisfy the brain’s desire for stimulation, novelty, and a neurochemical “rush,” while also getting addicts out of their usual environments and providing new settings, new friends, and new routines.
“The goal of surf therapy is not to teach people to be surfers,” says Bryan Flores, who works with the Monterey County Mental Health Commission. “It’s to get them to use surfing to change their brain chemistry.
“You stand on the beach and get amped up, and all kinds of chemicals rush through the brain,” he explains. “Different ones are in play when you’re paddling out or have a monster wave chasing you to the beach. All of those chemicals can have incredible effects on how people cope with depression, anxiety, stress, and other mental-health issues.”
Get a Fountain
Or a wave machine. Or anything that brings the sound of water into your environment.
One of the huge advantages of water is that you don’t need to meditate to realize its healing effects, because it meditates you. Even recorded sights and sounds of water have a quieting effect.
Here’s one small but significant study to illustrate my point: In 1997, 10 cancer patients who were experiencing chronic pain watched a nature video that included 15 minutes of the sounds of ocean waves, waterfalls, and splashing creeks. After viewing the video, patients experienced a 20 to 30 percent reduction in the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol.
Nobody can claim that a fountain in the middle of a shopping mall will do as much for you, from a Blue Mind perspective, as standing in a rushing current, fishing pole in hand, or body-surfing the waves on a sunny afternoon (though such fountains have been shown to have remarkable effects). But what studies like these show is that even something as modest as a fishbowl or a tiny fountain on your desk can be enough to markedly reduce your body’s reaction to stress.
Visit an Aquarium
There’s a Blue Mind reason so many dentists’ offices contain fish tanks.
Thirty years ago, researchers from the Schools of Dental Medicine and Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania studied different ways to reduce anxiety in patients prior to oral surgery. Options included looking at aquariums or gazing at posters, with or without simultaneous hypnosis. Viewing the aquariums proved to be more relaxing by far, and even adding hypnosis to the experience could not improve upon the high level of serenity it produced.
A more recent study done at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, England, monitored the blood pressure, heart rate, and self-reported relaxation levels and moods of 112 people who spent a minimum of 10 minutes observing aquarium tanks. Blood pressure dropped substantially during the first five minutes across all subject groups, while the most positive changes in heart rate, relaxation, and mood occurred in those who viewed the tanks with the greatest biodiversity.
Connect and Protect
Ocean advocate Jean-Michel Cousteau often says, “When we protect our waters, we protect ourselves.”
Human health is intimately linked to environmental health. If our food, air, and water aren’t well, neither are we.
But research shows there’s more to it than that. The vast benefits we derive from healthy waterways go beyond what we drink and eat; they are physical, cognitive, spiritual, and creative. What we receive from healthy water is something we can’t thrive without.
My hope is that our understanding of how good it is for us to be by water will become a powerful argument for keeping our world’s waters clean, healthy, and free.
Our interdependence with the natural world goes beyond ecosystems, biodiversity, or economic benefits. Our neurons and water need each other to live.
This article is excerpted from the book Blue Mind by Wallace J. Nichols. Copyright © 2015. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Blue Mind and Flow
How being around water can help us overcome creative blocks.
By Wallace J. Nichols
Benjamin Franklin, Edmond Rostand, and Vladimir Nabokov did much of their writing while in bathtubs. Hilary Mantel reports that she takes showers when she gets stuck in her writing. Oliver Sacks reportedly got over his writer’s block with long swims every day in Long Island Sound.
“There is something about being in water and swimming which alters my mood, gets my thoughts going, as nothing else can,” Sacks writes. “Sentences and paragraphs would write themselves in my mind, and at such times I would have to come to shore every so often to discharge them.”
Being on, in, around, or near water can calm our overactive minds while it imbues our senses. It might help overcome creative blocks because of our long-term association between water and the unconscious mind. It may also help us by tapping into ancient neural maps that we developed when the sight of water provided us with the pleasing message that we could survive.
Either way, it’s clear that water can help us access the state called “flow,” where we connect to the default mode network, or daydreaming parts of our brain. This can restore our ability to focus and perform cognitive and creative tasks with greater ease.