THE BLUE MIND
Research shows that diving and snorkelling can enhance your mental well-being
Are we healthier and happier when we are around or in the water? There is an emerging school of scientific thought that supports this idea and the concept of the “blue mind”. This phenomenon is described as a mildly meditative state of calm unity, and a sense of general well-being that is created when humans are near or in water.
This hardly comes as a surprise to those of us who dive and snorkel, especially when we do so at beautiful locations such as Wakatobi in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia.
The phenomenon known as the blue mind was first popularised by marine biologist
Dr. Wallace Nichols. After devoting much of his career to sea turtle research and conservation, he shifted his focus to the study of what he feels is a deep connection between humans and water – especially blue water. “We are drawn to water, because we come from, and are still largely made of water,” says Nichols. “In fact, the human body is about 60 percent water, and the brain is 75 percent water. When you see water, when you hear water, it triggers a response in your brain that you’re in the right place.”
Scientists have long known that the atmosphere at a beach or on the ocean contains elevated levels of negatively charged ions. These ions cause the brain to release mood-enhancing serotonin, and to reduce blood lactate levels. Now, as neurologists and psychologists turn their attention to the effects of water environments on the brain, they are finding scientific evidence that validates Nichols’ concepts of the blue mind. Using imaging techniques such as CT, PET and MRI scans, researchers have shown that proximity to water will increase the levels of certain “feel-good” hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin within the human brain. At the same time, levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, drop significantly. Equally interesting are indications that the human brain seems to prefer the colour blue to all others, and that proximity to water increases the brain’s ability to focus. Additionally, being in or near the water amplifies the calming effect that is associated with all human contact with the natural world.
THE PLEASURES OF RED AND BLUE
In contrast to the relaxed condition of the blue mind, brain study has also identified an alternate state known as the red mind. When a person is in a state of red mind, they produce higher levels of stress hormones, and place the brain on a higher state of alert. There are times when the red mind state is desirable, as it heightens survival instincts, and provides the motivation needed to address demanding and difficult situations, or to adapt to new and unfamiliar environments. What Nichols and other researchers find most interesting is that the interplay between blue mind and red mind states can occur when a human enters the water.
In general, the underwater world provides a predictable and calming setting, which induces a state of relaxed blue mind. But as all divers and snorkellers know, the underwater realm is also an ever-changing realm where the unexpected can appear at any given moment. Even in a relaxed state, some part of the brain continues to look for the unexpected. Unexpected events will trigger a brief surge of the red mind, causing the brain to release dopamine, which creates a sense of surprise and novelty.
In a recent interview, Nichols described the interplay of red and blue mind that takes place near water. “In or near water, there’s a high degree of predictability,” he said. “The background we see is fairly controlled, which allows part of the brain to relax. Against that consistent background, the brain continues to search for something that wasn’t there before, since the essence of survival is the correct interpretation of things that don’t fit in the landscape. This is regularity without monotony, the perfect recipe for triggering a state of involuntary attention in which the brain’s default network essential to creativity and problem-solving gets triggered.”
The human body is about 60 percent water, and the brain is 75 percent water. When you see water, when you hear water, it triggers a response in your brain that you’re in the right place
Dr. Wallace Nichols
TOP RIGHT Views like this one from Wakatobi’s jetty – at any time of day or night – can trigger cognitive and emotional responses that suggest “you’re in the right place”, according toDr. Nichol’s research
RIGHT The underwater world, in general, provides a predictable, calming setting, which induces a state of relaxed blue mind