Blue Mind

The Link, Summer 2017
| by Elizabeth Palermo |

There are obvious reasons we are drawn to water in the summertime: to play and to cool down. Ever wonder what makes us linger and gaze at the water’s ebb and flow? We may not be conscious of it happening but our brains are hard-wired to react positively to water. We innately know that water can induce a meditative state of calm focus. Away from screens and overstimulation the brain can slow down, daydream and access creativity.

Scientists are calling it “blue mind.” According to marine biologist and author Wallace Nichols, we need to regard water as an essential resource for emotional well-being – in addition to ecological, economical and educational values. His research shows that when people are in or near water they are calmer, connected, less stressed, more innovative and insightful. Neuroscientists are making the case for “blue space” being as essential in both urban and rural settings as “green space” in parks, fields and forests is good for us.

“…water can induce a meditative state of calm focus”

A lifelong ocean aficionado, Nichols’ research in float tanks and wild water shows the more biodiversity the better the health benefits. He approached his mentor, the late Oliver Sacks, to write a book about “the brain on water” like he did with music. He was instead prompted by Sacks to write the book himself. Last year, 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 started expanding the conversation on how we value water.

“[It’s about] connecting the dots on things we all inherently know about water,” says Nichols on the phone from California, who studies seas, oceans, lakes, rivers, swimming pools and even bathtubs. “To say, ‘hey kids, we’re going to the water to relax, to feel creative…’ For us to teach that a lake or a river is not just a source of biodiversity or an economic engine, but a source of well-being and emotional diversity is language you don’t hear often in college.”

Nurturing blue mind counters two other common mental states: the stressed, anxious and over-active yet unproductive state called red mind, and the lethargic, unmotivated, unsatisfied grey mind – products of our modern lifestyles.

“We all have the potential for blue mind,” says Nichols, who visited Fleming College last year as a guest speaker. “Whether in the wild, the park or even from the faucet we are all coming at it differently and can access it. You may be in a culture that emphasizes how awesome water is or in one that says water is scary or you’re not allowed in the water. You may have a positive or negative personal experience with water. If water means trauma to you or your culture then your response to this conversation is very different.”

Today, the conversation has evolved into Blue Mind Rx: to improve access to healthy water for all people and to include blue space activities in treatment plans provided by health care practitioners. Nichols says prescribing regularly scheduled time near, in or on water to help manage trauma, anxiety, addiction, stress, grief and a range of physical afflictions is cost-effective, lifelong medicine.

“I think Blue Mind gets people going in a different frame of mind and thinking about their river or lake that they fell in love with as a kid and will do anything for. That’s a great place to start the conversation,” says Nichols. “Even a frozen lake or foggy valley is water – hypnotic, mesmerizing, beautiful, relaxing and inspiring. On a deep level as animals we respond to that signal of well-being.”

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