What is Blue Mind? The science behind it

Water on the brain.

For many of us, we are naturally drawn to the water’s edge. But why? Is it just pleasant memories from childhood happy holidays? Is it the tranquillity of its natural surroundings? Or is there more to it? It turns out there is a science behind this attraction, and it’s called the Blue Mind effect.

Dedicating over two decades of his life to researching and raising awareness, Dr. Wallace J. Nichols is the founder of the Blue Mind theory.

J. Nichols explains there is chemistry behind Blue Mind. It’s a biological reaction. It triggers a response. And it’s deeply personal.

Blue Mind: A mildly meditative state characterised by calm, peace, unity and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment. It is inspired by water and elements associated with water , from the colour blue to the words we use to describe the sensations associated with immersion.

Dr. Wallace J. Nichols

Mentally and physically, you can wash away the stress. It offers calmness. A focus. It can literally suck the stress out of your body and out of your mind, as J. Nichols describes.

The Blue Mind theory has been around for over a decade – one of these first videos still explains it perfectly

Blue Mind on the Brain

Water positively affects the mind, body and soul. Being close to water floods the brain with dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin – all feel good hormones found through proven brain imaging.

The atmosphere at the beach, the ocean or by moving water contains elevated levels of negatively charged ions. These ions cause the brain to release these mood-enhancing hormones, as well as decrease the levels of the stress hormone cortisol – this is the feeling we get when we are by the water. A form of happiness.

Oceans, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, water fountains, and even baths and showers can make us feel calmer, increase wellness and boost creativity. Ever had one of your best ideas in the shower? Or whilst swimming? That’s the Blue Mind effect. It’s cognitive side. Feel more energised and refreshed from activities along or in the water? That’s the Blue Gym effect. It’s physical and mental side. Ever felt like the weight of the world has been lifted off your shoulders, and you are just enjoying being present in that moment by the water? That’s also the Blue Mind effect. It’s spiritual side.

To explain in greater detail, we need to look at Red Mind. This state of mind has become common in modern life. Our digital stress and pressure to always be available lifestyle has led to increased levels of chronic stress. It damages our cardiovascular, digestive, immune, nervous and musculoskeletal systems, causing serotonin and dopamine levels to drop – the opposite of Blue Mind. It makes us feel anxious, down, exhausted and even angry. However, without Red Mind, Blue Mind wouldn’t be as valuable.

When near the water, there is a high level of predictability. The background is fairly controlled with calm waters or constant rolling waves. As we move from a state of Red Mind, where our brains continue to search for things that aren’t there, when we find those stressors aren’t present, it becomes the perfect trigger for involuntary attention in which our brain’s default network supports creativity and problem-solving, as J. Nichols explains.

The Colour Blue

The brain prefers the colour blue over all other colours. It’s the world’s favourite choice, and many professionals are still not seeing the benefit of this. Japanese government and developers use blue lights in train stations to help reduce the suicide risk. Gatwick train station in the UK has also followed with blue lighting along platforms – both saw decreased suicide attempts. But we are still far from blue being used to its full potential.

There is so much awareness about green spaces being good for you and your mental health. Take blue spaces into these natural surroundings, and you take the benefits up a level. Recent studies by the University of Exeter Medical School in the UK have shown that whilst green spaces are welcomed, add blue into these green spaces, and they are a much-preferred option for spending time in. Environmental Psychologist Mathew White of the University of Exeter also highlights that urban scenes with water, such as fountains and canals running through the city, are preferred over those without these features. Even employees within the workplace will often vote to have water aesthetics and wall art in the office to enhance their occupational wellness.

My personal journey into Blue Mind

From the moment of my cancer diagnosis, I knew being surrounded by or on the water would be a significant reason behind my survival. It was instinctive. That same day I immersed myself in the natural salty water of the ocean, submerging the diseased part of me, begging to be healed as my tears rolled into the waves.

It wasn’t about finding happiness though. I was a world away from that. It was about finding my inner strength to cope, finding the calmness I needed to focus, taking in what was happening and clearing my head to make such important decisions. I needed an anchor to hold me still whilst I prioritised my health. That anchor was the water.

Stepping away from the tense conversations, hospital appointments, the flashing up of medical records on my phone, and the daily grind that things still needed to be done, the tranquillity of the water led me into that mild meditative Blue Mind state. It gave me a sense of perspective on life and helped minimise some of the anxiety and worry.

As I continue this journey, water and its wellness have become a lifestyle. A Water Wellness lifestyle. A Blue Wave Wellbeing approach. The calmness and focus it gives allow me to still put my health first, followed by decisions I now want to make, instead of needing to make. Learning about that natural water instinct on that day of diagnosis has been incredible. Inspiring. Liberating. It has been a positive move toward my intellectual wellness and a path I may not have set on if it wasn’t for my fate.

And so, from there, my life mission was born – to help others discover the benefits of Blue Mind and Blue Wave Wellbeing.

Practice Blue Mind for Life

Whilst natural waters are the optimal environment for Blue Mind, there are so many alternatives to allow this relaxed state. Take a bath. Look at happy photo memories of a beach holiday. A desk water fountain. An aquarium. A waterfall. Relax in a float tank. Visit a splash park. Go fishing. Even drinking water – so good for us in many ways.

As Ocean advocate, Jean-Michel Cousteau believes, “When we protect our waters, we protect ourselves”. Blue Spaces are not only wonderfully beautiful and a vital food source; they are significant to our health. As long as we continue to protect and maintain our healthy oceans, lakes and bodies of water, they will do the same for us, with the health benefits they bring everyone. And ultimately one of the fundamental reasons behind Blue Mind.

As J. Nichols suggests, #practicebluemindforlife.

Blue Mind Book Front Cover - Wallace J. Nichols
Wallace J. Nichols’ bestselling book, “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” (Little, Brown and Company, 2014)

About the author

Hello, I'm Gill, a Wellbeing Warrior who advocates for a better life by spending more time in Blue Spaces and on the water. From a 20-year career in Senior Retail Leadership to a 2-year experience of how life can completely change, I've learnt the hard way that now is the time for healthier environments in which we work, live and play.

By achieving a sense of Blue Wave Wellbeing, my mission is to help others avoid the life-crashing health journey I have been through due to life and work-related stresses.

Nothing is going to stop the crashing waves. But you can learn how to duck dive them.

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