CLEVELAND, Ohio – What’s your water?
Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols asks this question when he meets people. What body of water do we dream about? Revisit in our memories? Go for vacation?
People love the water, says Nichols, author of the 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.”
Whether it’s a bathtub or a pool or an ocean, water makes us calmer. It makes us happier. It enhances our relationships. Research has shown that being near, in, on or under water can lower stress, increase our sense of well-being and boost creativity.
This is the peaceful, meditative state Nichols dubs the “blue mind.” The opposite of the overloaded, overconnected, overstressed “red mind” that has overtaken modern life.
RocktheLake talked to Nichols about the blue mind, the soft fascination of waves and why people take pictures of their boats.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why did you write this book?
I was drawn to the water. I wanted a career that would allow me to be on, near or under water as much as possible. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that the dots connected. I thought, we need to understand this feeling -- for human health and wellness, the health of our waterways and plain old curiosity.
I wanted to read the book I wrote. I didn’t want to write it. I thought, there’s gotta be a book like this. But there hadn’t really been water story. There was a lot more research on green space, not blue.
If most people know intuitively that we feel calmer by the water, why study it?
You don’t need to study physics to understand gravity. If you drop something, it falls. We study gravity and it helps us fly airplanes.
If we study water, we can do a lot more. We can help people who need it the most. A boat may be the best medicine for someone. It may help fix what’s not going so well. We could get health care practitioners to make it part of the approach to health.
My goal is to reach the level of common knowledge, in the way that it’s common knowledge that exercise is good for you.
What makes water so calming?
Part of blue mind is what it gives us. A lot of it is what it removes: You can’t bring your desktop. Probably not going to bring your laptop. It’s questionable whether you should bring your smart phone.
All day long, the world is demanding that bandwidth, with screens and traffic, email and people talking to you. That act of logging out, stepping away from the screens, starts you down the path of relaxing. It removes the many kinds of stimulation.
Is the sound of water what calms us?
Water provides semi-structured white noise. Either water lapping a boat or the sound of waves on a beach or the gurgling of a creek.
The noise has some regularity, some irregularity. It doesn’t demand your attention. It’s not carrying information. But it holds your attention. Psychologists call it soft fascination.
That creates a bubble of solitude and privacy surrounding you or you and someone you’re with. You can hear yourself think.
What else does water do?
If you’re actually in the water, you have a whole other level of comfort or support. You’re not dealing with gravity. Your brain is not coordinating 200 muscles to allow you to stand or sit.
You’re basically getting bandwidth back. You get to do whatever you want with that.
Is that feeling of comfort somehow related to the nine months we all spent in utero?
You feel really good when you’re floating in water, relaxing, when it’s warm. It kind of makes sense to make that connection.
Life comes from the water. You won’t live a week without water. That’s probably the most urgent biological need we have. The sensory signal that water is nearby makes us feel good and calm.
Can you get a boost from any body of water?
Yes. Even from the shower. I’d say there’s a continuum from good to better to best.
The advantage of a Great Lake, compared to a creek, is that there are way more things you can do with a Great Lake.
How can we best take advantage of water?
Stop on the way to work and dip your feet in. it’ll make your day better, I guarantee it.
It’s right there, one of the best sources of relaxation and medicine available to us. It’s free. You should try to enjoy it every day and realize how blessed you are to be able to have this conversation.
Are people who live by the water happier?
All the studies so far show that people who live near the water have a higher level of self-reported happiness.
When you have a lake, you don’t own the lake. But you’re part of a community. It’s there for you. It’s an emotional kind of consumption, which research shows gives you way more satisfaction than stuff.
What else can water do for us?
Nature is the number source of awe and wonder. That expands our empathy and compassion. By experiencing awe and wonder, it takes us out of ourselves, makes us rethink our world view and open our hearts and minds to other places.
Can we hold on to those feelings?
Absolutely. Blue mind memories don’t diminish. That’s why people have pictures of their boats. They look at it and go, “Yeah, that was great.” It creates these memories, these experiences, that are really valuable, really useful throughout your life
They give you a little bit of joy. You could make it a practice to look at it and to remember.
You were there and you felt good.
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