The calm the ocean brings us may be our blue heaven.
But does it come from our “blue mind”?
Perhaps more than anyone, San Diegans know the relaxing, zen-like feeling you can get at the sea shore. Lately, there’s been a growing effort to explain this through science.
So with a nod to the beautiful weather we’ve been having, this column is taking a day off from its usual political fare and going to the beach.
Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols has attracted a lot of attention in recent years with his 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.”
The colors, sounds and rhythms of the ocean and the air around it often bring us a sense of peacefulness. Nichols and others give scientific reasons for this, though some scientists aren’t buying all of it, even if they agree there’s an instinctive sense of well-being and wonder we get from the ocean.
“We have a ‘blue mind,’” Nichols says in his book, “and it’s perfectly tailored to make us happy in all sorts of ways that go way beyond relaxing in the surf, listening to the murmur of a stream, or floating quietly in a pool.”
Sally Nazari, a clinical psychologist in New York, has also weighed in on the subject. She told NBC the ocean affects our parasympathetic nervous system, which is “responsible for slowing us down and allowing us to relax and feel more engaged.”
I looked up parasympathetic nervous system so you wouldn’t have to. According to Science Daily, it is “one of three divisions of the autonomic nervous system. Sometimes called the rest and digest system, the parasympathetic system conserves energy as it slows the heart rate, increases intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract.”
So this theory holds that the ocean affects us, quite literally, deep inside.
There’s another potential physical benefit of the ocean. Feel good taking in that fresh sea breeze? There’s a growing body of thought that this may have to do with the negative ions in the air. These oxygen atoms have an extra electron and are prevalent in natural settings, usually around water: the sea, waterfalls, mountain streams.
“Once they reach our bloodstream, negative ions are believed to produce biochemical reactions that increase levels of the mood chemical serotonin, helping to alleviate depression, relieve stress, and boost our daytime energy,” according to WebMD, under the heading “Negative ions produce positive vibes.”
There’s evidence negative ions combat allergies by neutralizing things such as pollen, mold spores, dust and pet dander. Hence, the advent of air ionizers for the home.
Karen Dobkins, a UC San Diego psychology professor, would like to apply the brakes to this discussion. An avid swimmer, she is an absolute believer in the well-being the ocean can bring us and its therapeutic value. She just questions whether there’s as much science behind it as some people say.
“They’re all telling the same story, whether there’s data behind it or it’s our own intuition,” she said. “My point is, instead of always turning to science. . . the data is within ourselves. So trust that.”
She underscored that she’s a scientist saying this. That’s not to say there isn’t something there. Dobkins has an academic focus on mindfulness and mental well-being and examined the psychological properties of color.
In one study, people were asked to choose among 13 colors the one that they most associated with calmness. Light blue was selected the most, then gray — the colors of the ocean, she said. Blue has long been identified as having a soothing effect.
Dobkins said the rhythmic sound of waves also has a soothing effect and noted the yoga breathing technique “ujjayi” is called “the ocean breath.”
“The sound of the ocean is like the sound of our breath when we’re meditating,” she said.
“Blue Mind” author Nichols writes about how the ocean puts us in a “mildly meditative state.”
Dobkins added that the often-mesmerizing light reflections off the ocean and the lighter, if not weightless, feeling of floating in it can be healing.
Further, the bigness and permanence of the ocean and nature in general, she added, help put societal worries in perspective.
“It inspires us to be connected because it makes us realize we’re just a small part of a big, big plan,” she said.
But Dobkins also said there’s something more simple to all this: It’s fun. The ocean, she said, “is a socially acceptable playground for adults, and kids.”
In some instances, relaxation actually may be required to enjoy the ocean, according to British philosopher Alan Watts. “When you swim you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float,” he said.
Few people have a more complex relationship with the ocean than lifeguards. While we go to the sea for recreation, relaxation and renewal, they must be vigilant in a job that creates varying degrees of stress. But most seem to love the ocean for the same reasons so many of us do, regardless of whether science has anything to do with it.
“In my professional life, the ocean has been the scene of great joy and tragedy,” said B. Chris Brewster, retired chief lifeguard for the city of San Diego and a top official with the United States Lifesaving Association. “In my personal life, the mesmerizing constancy of the surf brings peace. It is there that my ashes will reside.”
That view was amplified in a message to the USLA membership from President Peter Davis.
“I’m not exactly sure where, in the mix of water and people and lifesaving, you find magic, but in a world where we’re trained to accumulate things and hold on to everything tightly, it’s a profession and an environment that forces you to let go and focus on what’s most important in this life,” he wrote.
In 1995, Surfer Magazine published an article titled “Why we surf.” Much of the commentary involved more than just riding waves. Through a bit of serendipity, I was asked to give my take.
“Why do I surf?” I wrote. “Because earthbound worries disappear when I paddle out. Because nothing could introduce me to the kind of hip 65-year-old longboarder and articulate 24-year-old hotshot whom I would invite to the same party. Because of the overwhelming feeling I get watching a sunset from the lineup. Because one good wave, just one, can make the whole damn day worthwhile.”
A family I know has a wonderful ocean view from their house, which is near my favorite surf spot. I’m fairly certain their “blue mind” helps them see beyond the middle-aged guys squeezing into wetsuits just down the street.