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  • Dan Connors

The Waterfall Effect- why does falling water make us feel so good?

Iguazu Falls- Brazil/Argentina

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

― Loren Eiseley, American anthropologist and educator

Have you ever stood by a thundering waterfall and just wondered why it felt so good to just be around it? Certainly the natural beauty is stunning, but there's something else going on. The effect that waterfalls have on humans can be duplicated in several other popular ways- crashing waves on a beach, rippling streams, and bubbling fountains. What do all of these things have in common? Water colliding with itself and with the ground below it.

I have written before about the benefits of being near water, and the premium that people will pay to live and vacation near water, preferably with a room that overlooks large bodies of it. But that includes standing or flowing water. This is something more powerful- negative ions.

I have noticed the waterfall effect first-hand on my trips to Missouri's beautiful Ozarks. Sitting by a clean Ozark stream and listening to it's waters ripple as they pass through narrow passages is some of the best therapy I've ever encountered. Kayaking those streams delivers similar results. And one of my favorite Ozark destinations, Dogwood Canyon, contains a multitude of waterfalls, all artificial but extremely real in appearance. And Missouri has some of the most incredible springs you will find anywhere- deep blue water coming out of the ground and flowing noisily towards the rivers below.

It turns out that most of these good feelings are due to something you can't see, smell, or touch- molecules that have been charged by the falling water. These are called negative ions and they are plentiful around any body of colliding waters. We don't understand why, but these molecules, once inhaled and passed into our bloodstream, can work magic on our mood and health. Here are some of the benefits that have been studied around negative ions:

  1. Increased blood flow to the brain and increased alertness.

  2. Higher Serotonin levels leading to improved mood and decreases in depressive symptoms.

  3. Reduces stress.

  4. Boost immune system function

  5. Lower blood pressure

  6. Enhance metabolism

This explains a lot for me. My brain is being chemically altered by the negative ions when I'm closing to falling water, which makes me feel good, and then makes me want to find more falling water. No wonder so many people like to go to the beach! Living in the Midwest, beaches are less of an option for me, and most waterfalls are a 4 or 5 hour drive away. But there are other options.

I bought a small desktop fountain for my office, and though it doesn't run a lot of water, it does create negative ions right next to me, which helps with the stresses of tax season. Those with more money can build waterfalls or fountains into their back yard, which can be expensive to operate and maintain. Public fountains are a popular addition to any city, and many are found near office buildings, parks, and senior centers. Everybody likes fountains, though I bet few people know about the negative ions that creates the feelings around them.

There is such a thing as an air ionizer that you can just plug in and it will create the negative ions right in your home- no water required. I'm seeing mixed reviews on those, with one of the problems being that they also produce Ozone, which can be an irritant in high enough concentrations. Plus without the water it seems like cheating. But they may be worth checking out if this effect is as real as it appears.

I'm shocked that medical and behavioral science hasn't done much research or treatment around the waterfall effect. (Other than telling us to get outside), There has to be more that could be done- running fountains inside of hospitals and nursing homes, producing safe and powerful ionizers for homes and offices, putting wave pools into every water park, But I guess if everybody felt great all the time it wouldn't be so special anymore.

I've seen a few famous waterfalls in my time- Yosemite, Yellowstone, The Seven Sacred Pools of Maui. One of these days I hope to get to Niagara Falls. Last year I saw the fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas- huge crowds stood to watch the shows there and take in the ions. But most of us don't live close to those places, so we need to do more to create the waterfall effect close to home. We could all use a little less stress and a little more happiness.

In the meantime I'll enjoy my morning showers and small fountain, and appreciate the invisible magicians in the air that make me feel good all over, if only for a moment or two.

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