The calming power of the water
Dr Wallace J Nichols explains the concept of ‘blue mind’ and the emotional and physical benefits of being on a superyacht.
“If you like boating, you understand blue mind, you may just not have had a name for it,” says Dr Wallace J Nichols, marine biologist and author of Blue Mind, a book which explores the beneficial effects of water. In simple terms, ‘blue mind’ is the relaxing state we tend to fall into when near the water, in contrast to ‘red mind,’ which is the edgy, anxious and fearful state we often fall into as we navigate modern life.
The uplifting effect of water was always obvious to Nichols, but it was only when he was travelling the world studying sea turtles as a marine biologist that he realised just how big a role it played in the human psyche. “I noticed that whenever people were near the water, they were more relaxed, conversations were better and people really seemed to find healing – whether from anxiety, burnout or even addiction.” Inspired, he went looking for a psychology book that might explain the phenomenon. None found, he decided to take matters into his own hands and write one himself.
“I knew that this effect I was witnessing was neurochemistry. It wasn’t just an idea that fell out of the sky,” says Nichols. “The fact that your feelings change around the water means that a chemical reaction is taking place.” There is science to back this up. One piece of research he cites in the book, from the Institute of Brain Research in Oklahoma, finds that flotation tanks are one of the best ways to treat anxiety disorders and PTSD. “If you’re on a yacht and stop to go for a swim or float in the ocean on your back, you’re achieving a form of that sort of therapy. Everything that you’re worried about goes away.”
So what is it about the water that has this calming effect on us? Part of it is to do with what the water takes away, explains Nichols. “It takes away all the things on land that distract us; the built environment, the signs, the traffic, the architecture – there’s nothing wrong with any of that, it’s part of our lives, but it does overwhelm us. It taxes us psychologically and those things have exponentially grown in the past few decades.”
Wallace J. Nichols
Wallace J. Nichols
Another part of the calming effect comes from the water itself. “You get to the dock and all that stimulation is taken away. You’re standing on the bow looking out, you see maybe a few other boats, some birds, some clouds,” says Nichols. “That sets up a visual pattern that is inherently soothing. It’s rhythmic but it’s not boring. It’s meditative, so it helps us relax.” Another study in the book, from the University of Exeter, found that being by the water gives a boost in self-reported happiness and wellness. “In the last five years, the clinical research on blue mind science has exploded and all of it keeps saying the same thing,” says Nichols.
Nichols cites a report he did for a marine association about brain behaviour on boats. “The main conclusion was that a boat is humanity’s best way to access blue mind,” says Nichols. “Boats come in all shapes and sizes – from primitive canoes to high-tech superyachts – but they all offer a proven way to relax.” No wonder so many superyacht owners savour the journey just as much as the destination.
“Travel by water is slower than many other modes of transport – so it really is a lifestyle,” says Nichols. “If you’re not savouring the journey, you’re missing 99.9% of the experience. Those are big moments when you arrive and depart but it’s everything in between that offers true value.” It comes as no surprise that Nichols’ life motto is, “in slow we trust.”
Nichols even finds that his concept of time changes when on board a yacht. “I find in the first few days I get on the water, my brain slowly switches from red to blue and with that comes a change of time perception; with red mind, you’re visually and auditorily overstimulated and your day is about checklists and tasks. Once you look away from that onto the water, there’s a big cognitive shift.” It’s relaxing even thinking about it.
Of course, there are ways to relax on land too, in forests and parks, but Nichols says, “almost every study has shown that when you add water to green space, it’s better for us than green alone. It should be common knowledge that blue mind is part of the medicine, especially as anxiety and stress are at an all-time high.” Nichols recently worked with a group of yacht owners in Australia who were taking firemen out for the day after they’d been fighting the massive bush fires as a way to help them. “I think we all need a literal or metaphorical boat at times,” he says.
For Nichols, who lives on Monterey Bay overlooking the Pacific Ocean, accessing blue mind is as easy as looking out of the window. But it can be something that everybody can practice. “For some, it involves the technology we call a boat, for others it’s a pool or a surfboard, a hot bath, or a snorkel and mask.” Is it time to jump in?