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  • Dan Connors

Blue Mind- how just being near water heals you

Updated: May 23, 2022

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- 2014

Why do people seem to feel better mentally and spiritually when out in nature, especially when next to water? Why are real estate buyers willing to pay a "water premium" of up to 100% for properties with views of the ocean or other body of water?

There is something strange and inexplicable going on when it comes to human beings and the effects that water has on them. This great book by Wallace J. Nichols looks at the many ways that water helps us feel not only physically and mentally better just by being in its proximity, but how we also benefit emotionally and spiritually. Nichols, called the "godfather of water" by one publication, is a scientist and writer who has become known internationally for his advocacy for the oceans, rivers, and lakes and our intricate connection to them.

Human beings are 78% water when they're born. By the time they die of old age that number goes down to 60%. Clean, fresh water is essential to our lives, and without any we would die in a matter of days. Nichols started something called the Blue Mind conference in 2011 for other scientists and thinkers to gather and discuss research on the power of water on the human mind and body.

Scientists can now use functional magnetic resonance imagery, (fMRI) to see how the brain reacts to any stimulus, and much research has been done in the past few decades regarding the effects of nature and water. There have been dozens of studies with animals and humans, and the results have shown that when presented with natural scenes, the brain goes into a more relaxed state, what Nichols calls "Blue Mind". In this relaxed state we feel more positive emotions and more connection with the world and with other people.

There was an experiment done with over a million people and a phone app called "Mappiness". People reported how they felt at random times during the day, and they almost always felt the best when outdoors and in nature. People valued positive experiences over material possessions, and those who were near water seemed the happiest of all. (Which explains why "the beach" is one of the top vacation destinations in the world).

This book also dives into some fascinating brain science in general that is always interesting. Science still has a long way to go in its understanding of the brain, but we're definitely making progress. Here are 5 random brain facts from the book:

1- We have a happiness baseline or "set point". No matter what happens during our day, we tend to revert back to that baseline. Amazingly, this happens with lottery winners and those with fatal illnesses- after a big event we tend to settle back down to our "average" happiness level. Some 50% of that baseline level of happiness is genetic according to scientists. Another 10% is our life circumstances (age, gender, race, etc), and the final 40% comes from our voluntary activities and goals that give our lives meaning. I would dispute the genetic portion, but obviously what you start with has a big effect.

2- Our brains, which are mostly water floating in a tank of water, are always changing. Neuroplasticity is the ability of our brains to make new connections and get rid of old ones. Our brains evolve over our lifetime and change structures every time we store a new memory or skill.

3- Focusing on the positive actually can move the happiness "baseline" according to this book. Even the most depressed people, if they can sustain regular positive focus, can change the synapses and pathways in their brain to make themselves happier all the time.

4- Our senses take in information from the outside world and break it down. Our brain then uses past experiences and "maps" to make sense of the new data. Our maps define our world and limit what information we will even consider.

5- Multitasking overwhelms the brain and leads to bad decisions. Too much information creates a cognitive overdrive, and trying to handle it all at once creates stress and lowers understanding.

Getting back to Blue Mind, it seems intuitive that we all like water activities. The author covers such things as fishing, swimming, surfing, scuba diving, kayaking, and going on ocean cruises to show how we keep coming back to the water in our recreational time. He recommends things like hot tubs, bathtubs, and flotation tanks for the immersive experiences that they provide. They author also claims that just seeing the color blue relaxes people, which may be why blue is far and away the most favorite color in the world according to this book.

Most of our world today is changing, man-made, and overwhelming. Every time we drive, walk down the street, or sit in front of a computer our brain is bombarded with things to decide, potential threats, and potential acquisitions. The average person is exposed to 5,000 advertisements each and every day! When we are out in nature and things are calm (no thunderstorms or extreme heat or cold), our brains are able to relax because the natural setting is calm, predictable, and asks little of us. We can take it in and relax. When we're around water, the sounds, smell, and sight of bodies of water meditates us into a state of Blue Mind without our even having to try. (Try to meditate indoors with lots of distractions around- it's almost impossible.)

The author says that much of our days are spent in what he calls Red Mind, a hyper-drive existence, full of stress, anxiety, fear, and way too many stimuli. Some people get so overstimulated they fall into Grey Mind, or depression, where they become numb to just about everything. But if we can get into Blue Mind, we have a chance to re-charge our batteries and recover from the chaos that Red Mind brings.

Nichols tells some inspiring stories of how things like surfing and beaches were able to heal veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, (PTSD), children with autism, and hardened drug addicts. Water therapy is apparently a thing that's being tried by some therapists, especially in waterfront communities, and from this evidence it works well.

There is something called the default mode network that runs when we aren't actively engaged in tasks. When we let our minds wander during this time, maximum creativity can be attained as our minds consolidate all the experiences we recently had and looks for novel connections. Some of this happens when we're dreaming, but much of it happens when we're awake but not trying to push more information into or out from our brains.

Why do most dentist offices have aquariums? Why is "the beach" the most popular tourist destination worldwide? Why are people on vacation willing to pay hundreds of dollars more for a room identical to all the others with the exception that it faces the water? Why do most fishermen privately admit that their hobby isn't mainly about catching fish? And why do so many people report feeling better when exposed to pictures of water bodies and recordings of waterfalls? Water has a strong emotional effect on human beings that we still don't understand.

My favorite places to go for exercise or relaxation all involve water- mostly local rivers and lakes in my area. Certainly nature has a healing effect even without water- flowers, fall colors, birds, mountain vistas. Anything that inspires feelings of beauty, wonder, and awe takes us to a calmer state of mind and gives us perspective over the junk that takes up 90% of our attention. Water seems to magnify that effect and multiply it.

After reading this book I decided to get a small water fountain for my office. Fountains and waterfalls have particular meaning to me, and science tells us why. Negative ions are generated by water in motion. These ions, once they reach the bloodstream, are believed to cause biochemical reactions that increase levels of serotonin, a mood chemical that helps lift depression, relieve stress, and boost daytime energy. You don't have to go to Niagara Falls to experience this effect- a small fountain, long shower, thunderstorm, or local creek can produce the same benefits.

I've always known that spending time in nature is good for you. This book shows a lot of the reasons why that is, and focuses intently on water, a substance many of us take for granted but couldn't live without. Nichols ends the book with a nice story about his Blue Marble Project, where he and others give out blue marbles to others to remind them of their connection to the earth and to each other. In this age of disconnection, it's nice to hear of people trying to rediscover what makes humans tick.

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