Ever wonder why watching the cerulean, white tipped waves gives nearly everyone a feeling of peace and happiness? Marine Biologist and neuroscientist, Wallace J. Nichols set out on a quest to discover the connection between the human brain and its reaction to water. Residing in coastal California Nichols was perplexed by the idea that humans enjoy being near the ocean when there seems to be no obvious, scientific benefits from sitting on the beach all day. He became so passionate about discovering why we behave this way, that he adopted an entirely new field of study – neuroscience. He began a five year journey of scientific discovery that would culminate in authoring a book titled Blue Mind. First and foremost, Nichols needed to gain a firm understanding of how our brains operate, in order to do this he started attending Neuroscience lectures, reading medical journals, and even enrolling in online MIT courses. After Nichols dived head first into this project, he began to paint a clearer picture of how and why specific neural networks respond positively in reaction to water. To test his theories, Nichols not only analyzed various brain tissue slides, but also measured brain waves when exposed to the water using a head-band like technology to produce rudimentary EEG brain scans.
In order to comprehend the results of Nichols years of hard work, one must have a basic understanding of the science behind how our brain functions and process information. At the base of his research, Nichols analyzes the two types of attention pathways the brain uses: directed and involuntary. Directed attention is when we consciously direct our attention to a specific task or decision. On the other hand, involuntary attention is sparked by spontaneous stimuli that catch our attention, and allow our mind to drift in thought on more abstract ideas. From this, Nichols’s expanded the concept of involuntary attention into a state of Blue Mind which is a, “mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction”. But why is it we enter this unique state of being? Evolutionarily speaking, the first part of the brain to develop was the stem and limbic system which function to receive stimuli and react by releasing specific neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) across neural pathways. Nichols’s research found that when we are near, in, or under water a long list of “feel-good” neurotransmitters are released that contribute to why humans feel so good when around water. Some of the brain chemicals include: dopamine (pleasure), serotonin (peace), endorphins (happiness), oxytocin (love), and GABA (calmness). As one could imagine the sudden release of so many positive neurotransmitters rushes through our mind to produce what Nichols calls, “our most profound shortcut to happiness”.
Besides feeling better emotionally, studies have shown that being around water increases test scores, regulates heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and improves heart health. However, Nichols acknowledges that where there is Blue Mind, Red Mind also exists. Similar to the light and dark force from Star Wars, Red Mind is the dark side of the brain consisting of a directed-attention state that creates an, “edgy high characterized by stress, anxiety, and fear”. In contrast it releases a slew of “bad-feeling” neurotransmitters which create a more negative atmosphere. Though this sounds like a very destructive part of our brain, in his book Nichols explains how surfing creates a near perfect balance between Red and Blue Mind. He explains how the brain is wired to store massive amounts of information that translates into becoming an insanely effective pattern-recognition and prediction system. For example, when a person spends more and more time near the water or in it, they subconsciously pick up on subtle changes in water patterns that have been stored and analyzed in the hippocampus (long-term memory) region of their brain. When a surfer is out on the water, it allows them to have a significant advantage when searching for the perfect wave. Surfing creates a unique “flow state” that results from tension between the Blue and Red Mind. In flow state, “we lose track of time, nothing else seems to matter, and we seem truly alive and at our best,” where we are extremely focused yet completely in the moment.
Nichols’s ground-breaking research in neuroscience proves that happiness from being near or in water is naturally built into our ancestral DNA. The state of Blue Mind serves many functions including: maintaining health, decreasing stress, and increasing overall satisfaction. Even more amazing, the strange tension between Red and Blue Mind that surfing produces leads to even higher levels of enjoyment and alertness. Therefore we should not only be spending more time in the oceans and other bodies of water, but working to protect them for future generations.
Blue Mind by Wallace J. Nichols
Maxwell Klinger. “Mind Surf: the Science Behind the Stoke”. Surfer. 1 June 2015. Surfer magazine. 26 October 2015.