“We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch - we are going back from whence we came.” - John F. Kennedy
Summertime, coupled with school vacation often means more time spent by the water.
Billions of dollars are spent to get closer to water in our never-ending attempts to cool our bodies, invigorate, inspire, renew our minds, relax our minds, build new memories, and create nostalgia. Water feels good. It’s fun. And, it connects us to each other and ourselves.
Yet, we know far more about our brains on chocolate, coffee, drugs, iPhones, music, politics, stress, and even red wine, than we do about our brains on water. As we enter a golden age of neuroscience, few researchers have taken on the topic of our “brains on water.”
“Despite the fact that water covers more than two-thirds of our planet, systematic investigation of relationships with aquatic environments, or blue space, has been neglected”, said University of Plymouth psychologist Mathew White and his co-authors in a paper published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.
“Our main hypothesis was that people would respond favourably to both natural and built environments containing water,” they said.
Dr. White has been studying the neurocognitive effects of water since 2010 with direct consequences for coastal planning and public health. His team at the European Center of Environment and Human Health is conducting a wide range of cutting edge interdisciplinary research across the United Kingdom related to “blue space”. They are learning just about what one might expect, and then some. For instance:
Scenes containing water are associated with higher perceived restorativeness than those without water.
Restorative qualities are more closely associated with calm versus inclement seascapes, but subaquatic scenes are rated as favorably as terrestrial “green space”.
Good health is more prevalent the closer one lives to the coast, and effects of coastal proximity may be greater among more socio-economically deprived communities.
Current and future studies will focus not only visual cues, but also on ocean sounds, as well as responses to the rich biodiversity of fishes in public aquariums.
"We are starting to do brain scans...in response to [people] looking at images of coastal environments...", Dr. White told the BBC's Michael WIlliams. "In the lab we've shown people prefer aquatic and water scenes...people are drawn to the color blue."
In general, these studies in the U.K. demonstrate that both natural and built scenes containing water are associated with higher perceived restorativeness than those without water. Even when visitors to the seaside were found to arrive in a good mood, they leave the coast with significantly heightened positive mood.
Meanwhile, as international “BlueMind” research begins to catch on, many programs that rely on the power of water to heal people emotionally and physically aren’t waiting around for the results.
Operation Surf, for instance, teaches active duty members of the military to surf, many of whom have lost limbs in combat. Van Curaza, a former pro surfer and director of the program, told me that after surfing then men he works with “finally get a solid night’s sleep, and even have good dreams.”
“For some of them it changes their lives, and even saves their lives,” he said.
Heroes On The Water similarly deploys kayak fishing as a way to help treat PTSD in veterans and promote reintegration, rehabilitation, and relaxation. Wounded vets overcome obstacles and discover a peaceful place to play.
Directors of both programs state that they don’t need more proof that their efforts work, but that more science could help them help many more people.
Working at the other end of the age spectrum is Nancy Higgs, a registered nurse and swimming instructor. Through the program Water Way Babies, Nancy has worked with hundreds of families around the world with children whose mental and physical abilities preclude normal movement on land. In the water, however, these same kids are able to develop physically and mentally. Higgs has files full of testimonials from appreciative parents who successfully use water-based therapies with their children.
Recent reports by Anette Kjellgren and colleagues in Sweden suggest that floating in water may have beneficial therapeutic effects on mental health.
“A lot of sicknesses in our society are due to stress, and there aren’t opportunities to find this stress relief in ordinary life,” says Dr. Kjellgren.
Not surprisingly, float or isolation tanks are regaining popularity. There was even an international conference held this year in Portland, Oregon. At the conference, Dr. Justin Feinstein, a clinical neuropsychologist at the California Institute of Technology and an expert in the study of fear in the brain, will present a new research project aimed at exploring the use of floatation tanks in the treatment of anxiety, including Panic Disorder and PTSD.
Throughout history there is no shortage of people who have experienced and expressed the calming, inspiring, and even healing effects of water. It’s also well established that chronic psychological stress contributes significantly to disease, inhibits healing, and interferes with decision-making processes. Many people around the world self-administer water therapies at home, at spas, in pools, and along waterways as treatment for a variety of maladies. Savvy advertisers entice us to travel—or buy beer, bottled water, jewelry, and real estate—with images of serene blue waters.
But the idea of the “seaside cure” is in fact quite an old one. In 1750, Dr. Richard Russell published his dissertation on the healing qualities of the ocean, in particular his local Brighton, England coastline. The practice of visiting seaside spas quickly caught on—some called it “seaside mania”—and Dr. Russell rode the wave.
Increasingly, present-day health practitioners and hospitals are recognizing anew the role of water in well-being. Modern hospital designs incorporate nature to promote maximum healing and cost-effectiveness. Interiors and exteriors include fountains, fish tanks, and waterfalls, all designed to be nurturing of and relaxing for patients.
Furthermore. recent studies have found bathing in warm water provides cost-effective, convenient pain reduction, alleviates some mental disorders, and impacts other areas related to quality of life such as sleep and appetite.
Science can now even contemplate the familiar feeling of awe we get when standing by water, noting that it may even change our perception of time as well as influence how we feel about ourselves and others, as suggested by studies at Stanford University.
"Seventy percent of my body is saltwater. My brain is bathed in saltwater. There's no lack of clarity that we came from the ocean," said Stanford’s Philippe Goldin, who studies the meditative and contemplative brain.
“The smooth surface of the ocean rarely surprises, which is also soothing,” Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus of neuroscience at UC - San Francisco noted. "When it's landmark-free, it's naturally calming to us, much like closing your eyes is calming."
The science behind these deep truths and the accumulated personal experiences—especially as life on earth gets hot, more crowded, and more stressful—seems worth knowing more about. The cognitive benefits of healthy waterways, if better understood, may provide additional incentives and justification for protection, conservation, and restoration of those waterways in the name of global mental health and well-being if not for purely economic and ecological reasons.
As we spend time in, on, and near water and these dots are connected, we may learn more ways that being by the water can be very good for us—giving us yet another reason to protect and restore our little blue marble home.
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