Your Brain on Water

Reflection on water at the Chicago Botanic Garden image: Jack Carman
Reflection on water at the Chicago Botanic Garden
image: Jack Carman

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
Wallace J. Nichols
2015

When I heard writer and sea turtle expert Wallace J. Nichols speak in Sausalito last summer, I was delighted by how much of what he said resembled the science behind why nature is good for our health and well-being. He quoted much of the same research we landscape architects do when promoting healthcare and therapeutic gardens. I knew I had to read his book, and I was amazed by the range of information that he brings together as both a scientist and an unabashed ocean lover in his book Blue Mind.

Blue Mind is an enjoyable read about the numinous experience of water, coupled with an urgent message to wake up to what is ‘hidden in plain sight’ in the hopes that we humans can transform the way we treat our planet’s resources. Nichols shares a strong emotional connection to this liquid element, as do many people who are willing to pay a lot of money to travel to beautiful beaches for vacations and spend top dollar for the house with a view of the water. For those of us who are curious to know what’s up with that from a scientific evidence point of view, this book explains the psychology and physiology of why we want and need the benefits associated with spending time in the presence of water.

In Blue Mind, Nichols makes an appeal to a broad range of people who might not feel convinced that emotion alone is a serious enough reason to cherish and protect this basic resource. He demonstrates the phenomenon of how people are attracted to water with cultural data, and how we are physically wired to benefit from the symbolism, physicality, color, sound, and essence of water as we encounter it in the environment, citing recent neuroscience studies and plenty of footnotes to point the reader to explore the topic further. Be prepared to dive deep from the comfort of your reading chair.

A contemplative water feature at the Chicago Botanic Garden image: Jack Carman
A contemplative water feature at the Chicago Botanic Garden
image: Jack Carman

Filled with anecdotal stories, some highly personal, Blue Mind reminded me of so many of my own encounters with water, especially of playing at the beach as a child. In describing why we love water so much, Nichols says, “It’s only recently that technology has enabled us to delve into the depths of the human brain and into the depths of the ocean. With those advancements our ability to study and understand the human mind has expanded to include a stream of new ideas about perception, emotions, empathy, creativity, health and healing, and our relationship with water.”

Wallace uses the term ‘Blue Mind’ to describe “a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment. It is inspired by water and elements associated with water, from the color blue to the words we use to describe the sensations associated with immersion.” He demonstrates a correlation between our connection to water with our level of happiness, and how that happiness spills over into our whole lives, not just the time we are connected to (near, in, on, or under) water.

Art and Infrastructure: Community, Culture, and a Collection in the Berkshires, ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award Winner image: Steward Cairns
Art and Infrastructure: Community, Culture, and a Collection in the Berkshires, ASLA 2015 Professional General Design Honor Award Winner
image: Steward Cairns

Chapter Six focuses particularly on the health benefits of getting connected to water. Stress is the most obvious and familiar ailment most of us suffer from, and even though we need some stress to exist, too much stress can literally kill us.

What if we could treat stress, addiction, autism, PTSD, and other ills with surfing or fishing? What if your doctor handed you a prescription for stress or ill health that read, “Take two waves, a beach walk, and some flowing river, and call me in the morning”?

Nichols’ term for too much stress is ‘Red Mind’—“an edgy high, characterized by stress, anxiety, fear, and maybe even a little bit of anger and despair.” This state is normal and useful if we are being pursued by a shark, but too much on a regular basis—like we experience in our fast-paced live—can lead to PTSD and cause or exacerbate the top ten causes of death around the world. There is science that connects these negative health outcomes with the effects on the hippocampus, on our ability to learn and retain new information, and the lowering of dopamine and serotonin—those happy chemicals our bodies produce when we are in the flow.

Another stress producer is multi-tasking, which is apparently more of a back and forth between various tasks than a simultaneous occurrence, as we have learned that the brain processes information serially. It’s interesting to note that, “in 80 percent of car wrecks, the driver was distracted during the three seconds before the collision.” Do not touch that phone! It’s also good to know that the state of ‘continuous partial attention’ we often engage in involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention, and our brain gets bogged down just trying to manage the situation.

Mill Creek Ranch, ASLA 2015 Professional Residential Design Honor Award Winner image: Bill Timmerman
Mill Creek Ranch, ASLA 2015 Professional Residential Design Honor Award Winner
image: Bill Timmerman

Sylvia Plath is credited with saying, “There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.” Did you know that there are scientific studies showing how hot baths reduce anxiety, and being around water improves mental health? Personally, I know that a hot shower can get me going in the morning and revive me after a hard day.

Blue Mind offers several examples of using water sports such as kayaking and fly fishing to heal mind and body. For veterans, cancer patients, and drug addicts, the physical, occupational, and mental therapy gives them distraction and a sense of peace and well-being that might be similar to what horticultural therapy offers. Another organization uses surfing to help overcome drug addiction. The endorphins of exercise replace the high of drugs.

There are also many amazing stories of the positive effects of water and water-based exercise on children with autism. Michael Rosenthal, a pediatric neuropsychologist of the Child Mind Institute who works with autistic children, comments, “As a clinician I’m always working with kids to find something that’s going to make them feel happy and safe and secure and relieve their anxiety. But it’s important to note that water in the ocean is therapeutic for a lot of people. I don’t think it’s necessarily an ‘autistic’ thing as much as it is a human thing.” Blue Mind—it’s for everyone!

by Lisa Bailey, ASLA, Healthcare and Therapeutic Design PPN Chair

2 thoughts on “Your Brain on Water

  1. Annette Heacox August 10, 2016 / 5:31 pm

    This is a great post Lisa. Thank you. In 1981, I visited United States for the first time. I never forgot what I saw at the Chicago Aquarium. They had a huge picture of a beautiful wave hitting the shore with the following words: “If there is magic on this planet it is contained in water.”

    • Lisa Bailey September 7, 2016 / 12:08 am

      Nice to hear from you Annette! You’re welcome, can you tell I really enjoyed the book? There does seem to be something spiritual about water. In Jungian psychology, it represents the unconscious which is where the mystery lies!

      Will you be in New Orleans? I have relocated to the Bay Area, so maybe we could connect here sometime?

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