Re­search shows that div­ing and snorkelling can en­hance your men­tal well-be­ing

Scuba Diver Australasia + Ocean Planet - - Contents - By Karen Stearns

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.


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

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