- Science shows how a trip to the beach changes your brain
- Key takeaways
- How does the beach boost your mood?
- How to make the most of your time on the towel
- Why The Ocean Calls To Us, According To Science
- Book review: ‘Blue Mind,’ on the benefits of being near water, by Wallace J. Nichols
- Why being near the ocean may benefit our brain
- Science Says: Being Near The Ocean Changes Your Brain
- Water Induces Meditative States
- Water Invokes Inspiration and Creativity
- Water Gives Us A Sense of Awe
- Water Increases The Benefits of Exercise
- Water Is A Rich Source of Negative Ions
- Taking A Natural Dip
Science shows how a trip to the beach changes your brain
Psychologists say time spent at the seaside does the mind (and body) good. Here’s how to best reap the benefits of all that “vitamin sea.”
- Staring at the ocean actually changes our brain waves’ frequency and puts us into a mild meditative state.
- Listening to the waves activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which makes us more relaxed.
- In addition, the negative ions in the sea breeze have a mood-boosting effect.
- Long associated with feelings of peace and calm, the colour blue has also been shown to enhance creativity.
Nothing says “summer” quite a trip to the beach. And there’s good news if you’re planning to hit the sand and surf this holiday season.
Turns out, spending time at the sea is not only good for your tan; it also has significant psychological benefits for your mental health.
In one study, analysis of census data collected in England revealed a positive association between health and wellbeing and living at the coast.
Similarly, another study conducted by researchers at the Graduate School of Maritime Sciences in Japan found that, compared with those who live inland, seaside dwellers – and particularly elderly coastal residents – show higher positive psychological effects thanks to their proximity to the ocean.
“Human psychology and behaviour are dependent, not only on current social stimulus, but also on characteristics of the environment,” say the study’s authors. “We should consider the value of leisurely visits to the seaside to promote public health and psychological wellbeing”
How does the beach boost your mood?
Among the reasons a trip to the seaside has us coming over all Zen are the relaxing effects on the senses of the swell’s ebb and flow. Research has shown that staring at the ocean actually changes our brain waves’ frequency and puts us into a mild meditative state.
According to a study conducted by researchers at Harvard and the University of Massachusetts Medical Schools, together with those from the Bender Institute of Neuroimaging in Germany, the brains of those who mediate regularly actually change in significant ways. “The results suggest that [meditation] is associated with changes in grey matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, and perspective taking,” say the study’s authors.
What’s more, according to psychologists, listening to the waves activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for slowing us down and allowing us to relax and feel more engaged.
The smell of the ocean breeze also contributes to a soothed state, which may have something to do with the negative ions in the air that we’re breathing in. These oxygen atoms have an extra electron and occur in places waterfalls and the ocean. Studies even suggest that negative ion therapy could be used to treat symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.
Add to this the colour blue, which is unanimously associated with feelings of peace and calm. One study even found that blue is linked to a boost in creativity.
How to make the most of your time on the towel
To stay in the zone while you’re at the beach, say goodbye to Instagram. Instead, close your eyes and listen to the ocean waves rolling in and out. If you’re getting alerts from your phone, that’s going to detract from the experience.
Above all, be aware of your senses. Focus on how your body feels warm from the rays of the sun, focus on what it feels to have your feet in the sand, breathe deep and smell the ocean air.
“Mindfulness meditation is unique in that it is not directed toward getting us to be different from how we already are. Instead, it helps us become aware of what is already true moment by moment. We could say that it teaches us how to be unconditionally present,” says Professor Karen Kissel Wegela, author of The Courage to Be Present.
So grab your bucket and spade and get out there to soak up all that vitamin sea. Oh, and don’t forget the sunblock!
Interested in delving deeper into the fascinating subject of human psychology? Perhaps you’d to study psychology at SACAP. Courses in psychology, such as the Bachelor of Psychology (BPsych) and the Bachelor of Applied Social Science (BAppSocSci), will teach you invaluable skills that can be employed in a number of careers. For more information, enquire now.
Why The Ocean Calls To Us, According To Science
Since ancient times, humans have assigned healing and transformational properties to water. In early Rome, baths were an important part of cultural life, a place where citizens went to find relaxation and to connect with others in a calming setting.
In ayurveda, the ancient Indian medicinal wisdom, and traditional Chinese medicine, the water element is crucial to balancing the body and creating physical harmony.
Rivers have long been seen as sacred places, and in a number of different spiritual contexts, water has symbolized rebirth, spiritual cleansing and salvation.
Today, we still turn to water for a sense of calm and clarity. We spend our vacations on the beach or at the lake; get exercise and enjoyment from water sports surfing, scuba diving, sailing, and swimming; refresh ourselves with long showers and soothing baths, and often build our lives and homes around being near the water.
Our affinity for water is even reflected in the near-universal attraction to the color blue. We're naturally drawn to aquatic hues — the color blue is overwhelming chosen as the favorite color of people around the world, and marketing research has found that people tend to associate it with qualities calm, openness, depth and wisdom.
Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist, believes that we all have a “blue mind” — as he puts it, “a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment” — that's triggered when we're in or near water.
“We are beginning to learn that our brains are hardwired to react positively to water and that being near it can calm and connect us, increase innovation and insight, and even heal what's broken,” Nichols writes in 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, published in July. “We have a 'blue mind' — 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.”
Here, Nichols speaks about how water can heal the mind and body and help you tap into your most calm and creative state of being. Here are six important benefits of finding your “blue mind.”
Water gives our brains a rest.
In our everyday lives, we're constantly bombarded with sensory stimuli, whether from our devices, busy homes and offices, or hectic city streets. Our brains need downtime, but they rarely get enough of it.
Being around water gives our brains and our senses a rest from overstimulation.
“The sound around us, from an auditory perspective, is simplified. It's not quiet, but the sound of water is far more simple than the sound of voices or the sound of music or the sound of a city,” Nichols tells the Huffington Post.
“And the visual input is simplified.
When you stand at the edge of water and look out on the horizon, it's visually simplified relative to the room you're sitting in right now, or a city you're walking through, where you're taking in millions of pieces of information every second.”
When we're near, on, in or under water, we get a cognitive break because there's simply less information coming in. Our brains don't shut down — they keep working, but in a different way, according to Nichols. “When you have that simplified, quieter 'blue' space, your brain is better at a different set of processes,” he says.
Water can induce a meditative state.
Many of us love to sit near the ocean or a river and gaze out at the water — often, we can sit for long periods simply observing the gentle movements of the water. Why? Though we may not be conscious of it, the water could be inducing a mildly meditative state of calm focus and gentle awareness.
When we're by the water, our brains are held in a state of mild attentiveness — what Nichols calls a “soft fascination.” In this state, the brain is interested and engaged in the water, taking in sensory input but not distracted by an overload of it, as we might be with the “hard fascination” we experience while watching an action movie or playing a video game.
Being in a mindful state — in which the brain is relaxed but focused — benefits the mind and body on a number of different levels. A growing body of research has found myriad benefits associated with mindfulness, including lower stress levels, relief from mild anxiety, pain and depression, improved mental clarity and focus, and better sleep quality.
Water can inspire us to be more compassionate and connected.
While in the restful, contemplative state associated with observing or interacting with water, it's also common to experience feelings of awe, Nichols' research has found. The emotion of awe invokes feelings of a connection to something beyond oneself, a sense of the vastness of nature and an attempt to make sense of the experience.
“That switches you from a 'me' orientation to a 'we' orientation,” says Nichols, citing research findings that feelings of awe can increase our capacity for connection and empathy.
“When you experience that feeling of awe, you get that 'one with the universe' feeling,” says Nichols. “You feel connected to yourself, the world around you, and whoever you happen to be with. That puts you in a 'we' state of mind.”
It's no coincidence, then, that many of life's most romantic moments take place by the water — engagements, weddings and honeymoons overwhelmingly occur in waterside locations.
“We hold important ceremonies by water. Both in life and in death, we gather by water when we can,” says Nichols. “If we can't gather outside by water, there's often a water component indoors.”
A blue mind is a creative mind.
Hopping in the shower, as many people know, can be a great way to trigger ideas when our brains are in a creative rut.
In our always-busy, screen-saturated lives, we don't give our minds much of a chance to rest and wander freely.
But when we do, the mind switches into a different mode of engagement, known as the default mode network — the brain network associated with daydreaming, imagination, consolidation of memories, self-referential thought, insight and introspection.
The default mode network is extremely important for creativity — which is often why we find that when we turn off our brains for a moment and get in the shower, activating that default network, that we suddenly come up with the insights and ideas that eluded us while we were sitting at our computers desperately searching for the solution.
“The shower is a proxy for the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean,” says Nichols. “You step in the shower, and you remove a lot of the visual stimulation of your day. Auditorially, it's the same thing — it's a steady stream of 'blue noise.' You're not hearing voices or processing ideas. You step into the shower and it's a mini-vacation.”
Rather than switching off, when you're showering, your brain switches into a different mode — and while the brain is in a more restful state, suddenly you're able to make those new or unusual connections. The “Eureka” moment comes at last — the insight or solution “feels it drops the sky and into your head,” says Nichols.
Exercise by or in water is good for our bodies and brains.
Exercise in any setting can improve our physical and mental health on a number of different levels, and can be an excellent way of reducing stress. But you may get even more benefit from your exercise by ditching the gym and taking a jog by the ocean or a swim in the lake instead.
“We know that water — being surrounded by blue space — helps us relax, and we know that exercise is good for our bodies and our brains,” says Nichols. “If somebody is experiencing a number of problems that exercise and stress reduction may help with, [water] is a good add-on. Find a river trail and run there, or get on a bike, or row or swim.”
Being outside near water while you're exercising will potentially give you more of a mental boost than exercising in a crowded, hectic gym environment with TVs in front of you and people all around. Many people feel intuitively that being in the presence water provides tangible benefits for their well-being, and as Nichols explains, their instincts are right.
“It's almost too obvious, and it gets overlooked,” says Nichols. “But the health and neurological benefits of exercise by water are very real.”
Book review: ‘Blue Mind,’ on the benefits of being near water, by Wallace J. Nichols
A fully dressed woman swims underwater (Gallery Stock)
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 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.”
’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’ by Wallace J. Nichols (Little, Brown)
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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Why being near the ocean may benefit our brain
There is something magical about a large body of water.
A stretch of the ocean across the coastline with never-ending waves; a large flat lake glistening in the early morning mist; a quiet, dark pool at the bottom of a waterfall. A river is passing by on its way to the ocean. These are nature’s incredible tranquilizers.
This is why we decided to have the Hack Spirit office right near the beach. We believe it enhances our calm and improves our productivity.
And we all know intuitively from experience that it’s healthy to be near the ocean. Now scientist and marine biologist Wallace J.
Nichols has explored the science of what happens to our brains when we’re near water in his latest 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.
He writes: “We have a ‘blue mind’ — 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.”
He defines “Blue Mind” as “a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment. It is inspired by water and elements associated with water, from the color blue to the words we use to describe the sensations associated with immersion.”
He suggests that we experience this state when we sit near water and gaze out at it.
During one of his numerous TEDx Talks on the topic (see below) he explains his belief that water holds vast cognitive, emotional, psychological and social benefits. “Nature is medicine – a walk on the beach; a surfing session; a stroll through the woods heals us. It fixes what broken inside of us. Nature can reduce our stress; it can make us more creative and bring us together.”
Nichols also speaks of the sense of awe we feel when we step out onto the beach towards the water — a common feeling suggested by his research. “This sense of awe moves us from a ‘me’ to a ‘we’ perspective. Awe and wonder, and passion takes over in water. There is a feeling of connection to others and something beyond the immediate.”
It is no wonder that being near the ocean is a natural choice for many of life’s meaningful events, celebrations and ceremonies. And it’s also no wonder that so many people dream their whole life of retiring at the seaside.
Researchers at the University of Exeter suggested that people are healthier when they live closer to the English coast. The researchers looked at data from 48 million people in England from the 2001 census, comparing how close people lived to the sea with how happy they said they were.
A study carried out by researchers at Canterbury University, Otago University, and Michigan State University in the USA, looked into the relationship between mental health and exposure to green and blue space. Blue space refers to the visibility of water. The study suggested that just being able to see the ocean contributes to lower stress levels.
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Science Says: Being Near The Ocean Changes Your Brain
Have you ever felt at peace when you’re walking by the ocean? A sense of rejuvenation when you stand by a waterfall? How about taking in the view of a breathtaking lake from your window? We can often report feeling a sense of calm when we’re around water and scientists say, this is having a positive effect on our brains.
So what exactly is happening to our brains when we surround ourselves with water? Well, the calming effect is down to a vacation for our brains from over-stimulation.
Looking at water and listening to its sound puts our overloaded minds into a relaxed and hypnotic- state with the benefit of this being a different way that our brain processes thoughts, leading to more calm and creative states and an increase our well-being.
Often referred to as blue space, the impact of the sea, rivers, lakes on our happiness and well-being is being researched much more by neuro-scientists and psychologists. Wallace J.
Nichols, a marine biologist, has discussed and published the different ways bodies of water really can positively affect us and many psychologists have researched how just having blue space in front of you can boost your mental health.
Water Induces Meditative States
When we hear the crashing of waves by the ocean, it can actually put us into a mindful, mediative state. The sound of waves has been found to alter the brain’s wave patterns and invoking a meditative, relaxed state.
Even simply observing the movement of water causes our minds to calm. This has numerous benefits for contributing to lowering depression, lowering stress levels, anxiety, and promotes better mental clarity and sleep patterns.
Water Invokes Inspiration and Creativity
When we’re near water, our brains switch off from busy mode to relaxed mode. This naturally leads our brains to open up because it’s not focused on the millions of thoughts swirling around that can often lead to stress or anxiety.
When your brain is in this relaxed state, it is open more to inspired and creative thoughts. In essence, we are switching our brains off or giving it a rest from the norm causing a better mental environment for insight and introspection.
Water Gives Us A Sense of Awe
Awe is an important factor in the recently popular science of positive psychology. The emotion of awe contributes greatly to our happiness because it not only allows us to be in the present moment but it causes us to think about our place in the world around us invoking a feeling of being humble, feelings of a connection to something beyond ourselves and the pure vastness of nature.
Water Increases The Benefits of Exercise
Exercising is obviously a good way to improve our mental well-being, however going for a run or walk by the ocean will increase these benefits ten fold.
Going for a swim in a lake or cycling along a river trail will give you more of a mental boost than working out in a crowded city or gym environment.
The idea is that being surrounded by blue space triggers a more positive benefit to exercising, with the intake of negative ions into our systems increasing.
Water Is A Rich Source of Negative Ions
The effects of positive and negative ions on our well-being have been considered a natural influence on how we feel.
Positive ions are emitted by electrical appliances such as computers, microwaves and hairdryers that drains us of our natural energy whereas negative ions are generated by waterfalls, oceans waves, and thunderstorms.
The rich amount of negative ions in the atmosphere accelerate our ability to absorb oxygen, balance levels of seratonin (the chemical linked to mood and stress), and contributes towards rejuvenating the mind and improving alertness and concentration.
Taking A Natural Dip
Not only does being near water increase your sense of well-being, but being submerged in a natural source of water such as the sea or a lake invigorates your body greatly.
The differing temperatures add benefits from both sides – the natural, cold chill can provide a soothing treatment for your nerves and refresh the body both mentally and physically while warmer waters during the summer can help relax muscles and tensions.
So, if you’re looking to clear your head then search for some blue space – whether you’re lucky enough to visit the ocean or just sitting near your local fountain, water has a powerful influence on the brain and can help change your mental clarity, capacity, happiness, and well-being.