Your Brain on Ocean: The neuroscience and health benefits behind why we crave the sea
We are made from it. We eat from it. We live from it. Humans evolved from it. We cannot survive without water so it makes sense that our relationship with it is deeper than a simple give and take transaction.
Human civilization has always gravitated toward the seas, rivers and lakes of the earth. Primarily, this is an evolutionary tactic. If you are near water, you are more likely to survive. But is this instinctive draw to water more than Darwinism in action?
There is certainly a well-established scientific principle at play, for starters. Like attracts like in chemistry and this applies to water molecules too. The composition of the human body is around 60 – 80% water. Perhaps those huge bodies of water like the sea, ocean and great lakes provide some kind of cohesive draw to the water in our bodies.
But there is a possible neurological connection too. If you have ever felt that overwhelming sense of calmness descend on you as you look out over the ocean, or as you listen to the waves lapping at the shore, it is not in your imagination because that too is a matter of science. In fact, as humans, we could be finely tuned to zone into a meditative state when in contact with any kind of water, but particularly the sea or ocean.
Marine Biologist Wallace J. Nichols has been researching this fundamental yet little understood link between humans and the ocean for almost five years. His theory is that humans are intrinsically connected with the sea and that when in harmony with it, we experience profound psychological benefits that can elevate mood, reduce stress and improve faculties such as concentration, clear thinking and memory. He calls this Blue Mind – something all humans share but few understand.
These theories are a welcome relief to thousands of surfers and seafarers who have, over the years, attempted to describe this phenomenon without the scientific underpinning to put it into the right words. At its simplest, being around water takes our busy minds off the endless sensory overload of modern life, allowing our brains the chance to escape from the endless onslaught.
The more complex theory is that our brains can ‘tune in’ to the frequencies of the ocean waves and when they do, it changes the patterns of our brainwaves, inducing a deeply meditative state that can heal and rejuvenate. There are a variety of studies available that show significant drops in stress hormones when exposed to the sounds of the sea. According to Nichols, this can be partly attributed to the actions of our biological stress messengers, catecholamine neurotransmitters, which operate at a lower level when exposed to certain sound rhythms. This is very similar to how mediation works.
Neuroscientists are working to catch up with Nichols’ theories and our systems of measurement still need some time before they can accurately measure the full effects of the ocean on the brain. Science may be lagging a bit here but anyone who has been within view of the sea, ocean, river or lake knows that there is something to this theory and the research thus far has been promising. The biggest mystery of all is why research is lacking and why it has taken one renegade Marine Biologist to provoke investigation.