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 like 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 like 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 like 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 like it drops out of 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."