The guy who kayaks and sets up camp along the same river each year. The woman who gets through the first year after her husband’s death one nightly hot bath at a time. The girl who brings her thoughts to the ocean each evening before sunset. The boy who throws rocks in the lake every day. The older couple who fall asleep to the sound of the waves. When was the last time you spent a period of time next to (or in) water? Maybe it was a week, or maybe it was ten minutes. Chances are, no matter how little time it was, it changed you somehow. It shifted your mood. It relaxed your thoughts. It softened the edges of your day, and you left at least somewhat revived.
Many of us grew up or now live close to a body of water. Still more of us choose to vacation by water – spend a week at the beach, stay in a cabin by the lake, camp by the river, etc. (By extension, how many of you wish you did or are planning to?) Even if we live in the middle of a major city, think of how people congregate around a city fountain to eat their lunch or simply sit and watch the people go by? The fact is, people invariably congregate around water (kind of like the kitchen at a house party). We’re drawn to water like our animal brethren despite the fact we have faucets and water bottles at our ready disposal.
Prehistoric human communities and, later, civilizations developed around water. Naturally, it was a matter of survival then. Human can survive on average about three days without water (despite those headline-grabbing outliers who manage a week or more). Lakes, rivers and oceans offered meals as well as hydration. These days we can live hundreds of miles from substantial water sources but be fully supplied through modern modes of transport. Yet, as with so much of our physical and cognitive blueprints, the psychological draw (and reward) operates beyond the context of necessity. To this day, surveys continually show people substantially prefer landscapes (whether urban or rural) with visible water to those without water. (PDF)
Water is at once perhaps the most utilitarian substance. Yet, it is also an aesthetic influence and even spiritual symbol that reaches deep into our innate associations. Culturally speaking, water embodies varied and significant archetypal meanings. Religious ceremonies and rituals using water abound across the globe around themes of cleansing, immersion, initiation and transformation.
It is also a sensual force that acts on us both physically and emotionally. Aquatic therapy (e.g. water play, exercise and flotation) is used for individuals with autism and other neurological conditions or trauma for proprioceptive and tactile input. Emotionally speaking, anyone who’s luxuriated in a hot bath after a stressful week or used a shower to “wash the day away,” can understand something of its healing element. Whether we approach it as aesthetic power, spiritual presence or therapeutic remedy, water holds a deeply ingrained if not sacred place in our evolutionary psyche.
Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist and author of 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 picks up this very idea and describes in full detail the common human experience of water exposure (or immersion) using everything from historical poetry to clinical study results to his own scientific experimentation.
He describes his experience, for example on a North Carolina shore while a 68-channel full-spectrum mobile EEG unit is measuring his subconscious reactions to the water with data collections 256 times per second. As he observes and jumps in to swim, would any of us be surprised to hear the EEG reflected both “fear” and “exhilaration”?
Bodies of water, particularly large bodies like the ocean can dwarf us, leaving us with a euphoric sensation of skimming the edge of risk or with a quiet, contemplative release in the shadow of a force so much greater and more timeless than ourselves.
Yet, the connection and rewards are tangible and becoming clearer with unfolding research. Nichols assembles an impressive array of studies supporting the role of not simply “green” (general nature) space but specifically “blue” space (body of water) exposure in encouraging greater stress relief, potent trauma therapy, added physical activity, and better community cohesion. Studies have found a moderate gain in general well-being and (likely related) an increase in exercise in those living on or near coastal areas as opposed to those who live inland. What’s more, those who exercise in the presence of water demonstrate greater self-esteem and better mood than those who exercise in other natural settings.
Researchers have analyzed the data of hundreds of studies related to water exposure and affirm the mental and physical health benefits (e.g. related to cardiovascular health, cancer, obesity, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction recovery, depression, and anxiety) that are difficult to always scientifically measure but simple to appreciate whether our experience is “recreational” or “contemplative,” “harvest” (e.g. fishing) or aesthetic. (PDF) However we act on water, it’s clear it acts on us.
Nichols takes it a step further, coining the term “blue mind” as the calm, “mildly meditative state” and peaceful, connected sense of satisfaction we experience in a body of water’s presence. He considers this blue state of mind as a critical antidote to modern stress soak we experience in this disconnected age. At issue, he claims, is our own mental well-being. Our “emotional interaction with the most prevalent substance on the planet,” as Nichols puts it, has implications for individual as well as societal health, not to mention environmental sustainability. Our evolutionary predispositions and preferences are far from archaic shadows but perhaps saving graces.