That water is good for us is something that I – and millions of other ocean lovers– know instinctively. But it turns out that there’s a lot of science to back up these feelings too. As an avid surfer and swimmer, I know that time in the water can make me feel more calm, grounded and happier. There is nothing quite like a good surf session to literally wash away negativity, anxiety, and fear. Here’s a video of a particularly good day last Spring in my favorite wave in Waikiki.
I don’t need research to know that water makes me feel better, but turns out science WINS again. Below is a republished article that I wrote a few years ago based on a great book that gives us all the clarity we need to prove that our time near oceans, rivers, streams, and even ponds can be so very grounding.
Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, a researcher and ocean enthusiast from the California Academy of Sciences, has dedicated his career to the ocean. Nichols has spent years in and on the water doing research and having fun, and in his 2014 book, Blue Mind: The Surprising Science that Shows How Being Near, In, On or Under Water can Make you Happier, Healthier, More Connected and Better at What You Do, he shares his decades of research about why our brains function best with water.
As described by Nichols, Blue Mind is the, “mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life and the moment” (6).
This is juxtaposed with what Nichols and other researchers call ‘the Red Mind’– the agitated, busy, stressed, engaged self that is busy answering emails, driving, and running errands. When we exist in the Red Mind, neurochemicals like norephinephrine, dopamine, and cortisol are flowing through our system, keeping us on high alert. These hormones are helpful for getting through rush hour traffic (or, in evolutionary terms, hunting our dinner or running from a predator), but we can’t have them flowing constantly– we need to give our brains and bodies a break. And it seems that water is the perfect antidote.
Many neuroscientists believe that the secret behind the healing, calming power of water is that we evolved to appreciate water for its life-giving properties, and our brains are still hardwired to see watery places as inviting. Philosopher Dennis Dutton explains that our universal “landscape” is one that includes water- regardless of whether there is actually water where we live, implying that we all have water on the brain as an evolutionary memory.
One study showed that when people were asked to rate over one hundred pictures of different images, “respondents gave higher ratings for positive mood, preference, and perceived restorativeness to any picture containing water, whether in a natural landscape or urban setting.” Other research shows that we tend to prefer vacations by the water too. Data from over 4,000 respondents showed that “coastal visits were associated with the most restoration.”
And it doesn’t matter whether you surf, dive, swim, fish or just sit looking at water: it all has benefits for the brain and body. In fact, according to Dr. Nichols, water can so successfully reduce stress and help people find calm in their life that fishing is used to treat traumatic brain injury, PTSD, physical and metal disabilities in Australia, and surfing is used to help at-risk youth, veterans, and those with terminal illness find calm and peace in California.
“Focused time in Nature activates other parts of our brains, giving our fatigued frontal lobe [associated with executive function, cognitive control, and supervisory attention] a break. Areas of our brain association with emotions, pleasure and empathy can now take over, providing a calming influence that is measurable in brain scans and blood tests alike,” explains Laura Parker Roerden in the book (151). Similar to meditation, yoga or other mindfulness activities, water viewing or water engagement can help lower our stress hormones and give our brain a chance to relax by engaging in “involuntary attention.” In daily life we use a lot of “directed attention–” the type of focus we need when driving, texting and other mentally engaging activities. But we also need involuntary attention, which gives our brain a chance to relax. Not surprising, natural landscapes are much less complicated than urban environments, and thus give our brains a chance to focus on nothing, and letting it relax into a calmer, more meditative state.
Finding time to relax has never been more important in our busy lifestyles. As we move through our days, taking the time away from emails and errands to relax in or on the water can benefit us in innumerable ways. Whether you live near the ocean, a wild river or a tiny stream– heck, Nichols says even a bath or shower will do– there are many ways to benefit from water time and find calm, clear, collected space within your Blue Mind.
Quotes from Blue Mind have been notated with a page number from the paperback edition. Thanks to Little Brown and Company for sending a review copy.