As I look up from the pages of this book, there’s nothing between me and the horizon but water. The only sounds are the hypnotic hiss of stones as they are dragged back by waves and the occasional call of a gull. Fresh air gusts over the water’s surface, picking up notes of saltwater and seaweed. My mind is perfectly at peace. And it’s no surprise that I’ve headed to the beach to read “Blue Mind.” The author, Wallace J. Nichols, would tell me that I sought out the nearest body of water because I instinctively knew it would settle my mind, sharpen my senses and put me in a more productive state. But what I didn’t know — until I read the book — was why this happens.
“Blue Mind” is a fascinating study of the emotional, behavioral, psychological and physical connections that keep humans so enchanted with water. Nichols examines seas and oceans, lakes and rivers, even swimming pools and the contents of our bathtubs in a study that is both highly readable and rooted in real research. He is a marine biologist whose passion for our planet’s water goes far beyond the classroom. He urges us to get closer to water, not only for our own sake but for the environment and a healthier future for us all. The blue mind of the book’s title refers to the neurological, psychological and emotional changes our brains experience when we are close to water. Nichols draws on science and art, hard data and anecdote, and plenty of experience, to explain our blue mind in detail. Not just what it is, but how we can enter into this state and — perhaps most important — why we should do so.
The benefits of nurturing our blue mind go beyond just feeling good. Our blue mind is up against two other common states, as Nichols explains: red mind (stressed, anxious, overactive yet underproductive) and gray mind (numb, lethargic, demotivated and unsatisfied). Red and gray mind states are products of our modern lifestyles, habits and choices. Blue mind is a natural state that we all instinctively know but that many of us have forgotten.
Nichols calls on neuroscience to explain the cognitive processes our minds go through in response to water, combining scientific language and examples with personal anecdotes and stories borrowed from authors, artists and athletes. There are plenty of wow moments and passages that will leave you nodding your head in understanding. It’s incredible to think that we can alter our brain’s positive neural pathways by increasing our exposure to happy experiences in, near or on water, but apparently it’s true. While the mind runs the show, the body isn’t left out of the discussion. Most of us could close our eyes right now and recall the sights and associated sounds of our favorite shoreline.
Nichols explores the sensory appeal of water, showing us how the sight, sound, feel, and even smell and taste of water affect us on an incredibly deep and raw level. As a former swimmer, I enjoyed the stories of swimmers, surfers, divers, anglers, paddlers and boatfolk, and those who work on the water. Nichols peppers the neuroscience with fresh angles and stories. Did you know that actor Michael J. Fox made the career-changing decision to leave the hit show “Spin City” (and go on to launch the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research) after a surprise swim with a sea turtle? The book is beautifully supported throughout with quotations from novels and poetry, essays and famous speeches, all of which drive home the close bond we have always had with water. It’s a relationship as ancient as philosophy, art, sport and culture. “Thousands have lived without love,” W.H. Auden wrote, “not one without water.”
Ultimately, Nichols suggests that being close to water can make us not only happier, calmer and more emotionally healthy, but also more successful in life, relationships and even business. By tapping into an evolutionary urge that lies dormant in us all, we can access a powerful mental capacity for greatness. It’s something we all have the ability to do. This book shows us how to recognize it, stop ignoring it and tune in to it.
If you grew up near water, if you eagerly look forward to vacations at the shore, if you swim, surf, sail, dive or snorkel, get a copy of this book. You’ll read it once and then come back to it time and again as you begin to realize how your love for water has always shaped your decisions, feelings, behavior, choices and lifestyle. As for me? I moved back to the coast two years ago when the landlocked life I knew suddenly fell apart and I found myself floating, anchorless and unmoored. The seaside of my childhood called me back, and I followed, not knowing why the decision felt so good. Now I know: I was honoring my blue mind. It all makes perfect sense.
Nicola Joyce is a journalist who lives on the southern coast of England. She has swum the English Channel twice.
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
By Wallace J. Nichols
Little, Brown. 333 pp. $27
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