Blue Mind: The Neuroscience Behind Water’s Creativity-Boosting, Stress-Reducing Effect on Your Brain

“That’s what flow is—relaxing into what you know well, and letting creativity happen. Water, literally and metaphorically, allows us to do that.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • Where to find a “privacy bubble” in the middle of a city
  • How to discover your next big idea
  • Why we all need to spend more time near, on, in, or under water

Called “Keeper of the Sea” by GQ Magazine, Wallace J. Nichols is a renowned marine biologist, bestselling author, and expert on the incredible psychology of water. Author Srinivas Rao recently hosted J. on the Unmistakable Creative podcast to discuss how science is finally confirming what artists and innovators have always known about the sea.

Srini: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

J.: I wanted to be a marine biologist—specifically, Jacques Cousteau’s wingman. Back then, we didn’t have all this information available about how to become a marine biologist. Everyone around me [failed to give] a lot of encouragement, but I loved the way I felt when I was near, in, on, or especially under water. I felt like the best version of the young me, and I thought, “I want to feel that way all the time, even when I’m at work.”

Srini: It’s interesting that you use the exact words, “I want to feel this way all the time,” because that was literally my thought the moment I caught a wave [while surfing] and stood up for the first time.

I’m curious why you think people often miss moments of realizing, “Hey, this is the way I want to feel all the time,” and why they can’t find a way to connect that feeling to something they want to do with their lives.

J.: I think there are a lot of people who take their dream, and at some point, start burying it. I meet people all the time who have suffered the consequences of having buried their dream, and then start digging it up later in life. I just decided I didn’t want to do it that way—I wanted to live my dream, as cliché as that sounds.

At a young age, I watched my dad. He had a desk job, and he did it really well. He was first at his desk in the morning, and last to leave at the end of the day. He was a hardworking guy, [but] I just watched that and thought, “Hell, no. No way. I’m not going to do that.” So I guess that’s a gift from my dad—deciding to align my dreams and my work.

Srini: I think you and I share that experience. My dad’s a professor, and not that there’s anything wrong with it, but I just thought, “This is not the life that I want to lead.”

So how do you go from that early inkling to where you’re at today?

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J.: I guess I’ve always known that being in water makes us feel good as a personal experience, but as a marine biologist, we’re not really allowed to talk about that stuff. So I went through the traditional education—I got my master’s degree in environmental economics at Duke, and then did a PhD in wildlife ecology and evolutionary biology studying sea turtles in Mexico.

I published tons of papers on marine biology, animal migration, genetics, and conservation. And all along, I realized that there’s this big missing piece—this deeper drive to connect with big water. [Look at the people who] care deeply about the ocean, including fishermen, fisherwomen, people who do whale watching for a living. This drive to connect with water just seemed so interesting and so important.

I’d always been fascinated by neuroscience, and one day I thought, “There’s a book about your brain on music, a book about your brain on food, many books about your brain on happiness… There’s got to be a book about water and your brain. It’s the single biggest feature of our planet, and our brain is the most complex thing in universe, so somebody must have written about those two things together.”

[But] I didn’t find the book I was looking for. So I actually pitched the idea [for the book] to Oliver Sacks, the late, great neurologist and brilliant writer, and he said, “That’s a good idea. You do it.” I was like, “Oh, crap. Oliver Sacks said, ‘You do it.’ Game on.”

Srini: I think that all of us have something like that in our lives, something that we want to see exist in the world. If you were to guide somebody on how to find it, what would you tell them?

J.: What’s the thing that you know, that you can’t [yet] prove? Maybe that’s what you might want to dig into for your next big idea. If there isn’t enough research, find the research that scatters around the dot that you’re looking for. Start connecting those dots, and you get this web of really interesting insights.

That’s how big ideas are formed. They’re not already pre-formed, sitting there, waiting. They’re waiting for you to connect the dots and start building that structure and scaffolding.

Srini: Let’s get into the neuroscience of water’s impact on the brain. What did you discover in your research?

“What’s the thing that you know, that you can’t [yet] prove? Maybe that’s what you might want to dig into for your next big idea.”

J.: [In my research, I had to] connect the dots and say, “Alright, what happens when we step up to the water? What is different about stepping up to the water versus stepping out onto a sidewalk, or into a forest?”

It turns out that when we put ourselves at the edge of the water, visually, our field of view is simplified. Auditorily, our world is simplified. Your sensory input gets simple. It doesn’t completely turn off, but the patterns become more clear.

When you get into the water, the hundreds of muscles that have been holding you in standing position no longer need to do that work, and the brain regions that were taking care of that get a break.

Auditorily, visually, somatically, you’re getting a break. You’re getting a rest. The default mode network is activated and you go into the “default mode,” which is a more contemplative, self-referential perspective. Your brain doesn’t have this complex auditory and visual input, so it goes to work on some other things. You have this different feeling that I call “Blue Mind,” and it’s a mildly meditative sense of being more connected to yourself, more connected to your environment, more connected to the people around you if you happen to be with a loved one or friend. And it’s different from stepping out onto the sidewalk, or sitting in this room, or even taking a walk in the forest.

That mindset, that default mode, opens us up to a whole toolbox of cognitive, emotional, psychological, and social skills that are not always available to us in our Red Mind mode, where we’re rushing around, processing lots of visual information, taking in and filtering lots of sound. It’s worth considering that as a piece of how we live, and reminding ourselves to take that time and break away and find your water, whatever it may be. For me, it’s the Pacific Ocean two blocks away. For some people, it’s their bathtub. For some people, it’s the pond or the lake or the river in their town.

When you get down into it, there are all kinds of incredible applications. For people who are extremely stressed out or suffering from post-traumatic stress, water can be among the best therapies available. For people who are extremely distracted and can’t settle down to think about something that needs their attention, just taking themselves to the edge of water can open up the creative process. Artists and musicians have known this for a long time, as have entrepreneurs and scientists. It’s really a simple idea, but hopefully, conversations like this one can nudge us back to making space in our lives for a little bit more Blue Mind time.

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Srini: I love that you brought up this idea of water being accessible to anybody. At the moment, I’m not at a stone’s throw away from the water, so I have to pick my surfing days very carefully, but the idea that it’s accessible to us through something as simple as a shower is really interesting to me. Because I read about a lot of ideas that occur in the shower—that’s not an uncommon occurrence.

One of the things I’m curious about is the feeling we have when we come out of the water. What is happening to my brain when I’ve gotten out of the water after a surf session?

J.: That’s a great example, surfing. If you take surfing and rip it apart, part of it is exercise, plain and simple. There’s a ton of research on exercise—[even] without the ocean—being really good for your body, but also for helping you regulate stress, for reducing the brain’s harmful chemicals and boosting the good ones, for just helping your brain be a better brain. You get this endorphin high from exercise of any kind, so when you’re getting out of the water after a surf session, you’ve got that, along with all these other aspects of being near, in, on, and under water.

You add to that the sound, the rhythmic sound of the ocean, which puts you in a synchrony, or what scientists call a “groove.” There’s some really cool research that’s come out about rhythm and the brain—it turns out that your synchrony with the rhythm occurs subconsciously. So even without trying, even without being a musician, you get into the groove with whatever the rhythm is, just by being in the presence of those sound waves.

The psychologists refer to this sense of “soft fascination,” which we get when we’re on a surfboard or sitting on a beach—it holds your attention, but it doesn’t dominate your attention. The ocean is changing, sending little pockets of information at you. There may be a fin, there may be a bird, the breeze may pick up. It holds your interest, but at the same time, it isn’t a massive, distracting amount of information, so you enter this Blue Mind mode, this mildly meditative state.

Srini: The other thing that I have experienced is that I come out [of the water] and find flow that carries into all of my other work. If I write after a surf session, the entire experience of writing is completely different than writing on a normal day. I can just sit down, open up a notebook, and I don’t even have to think—it just flows. I’m curious how we might bring the sense of flow into our lives if we’re not surfers, or people who can easily immerse ourselves in the ocean.

“That’s what flow is—relaxing into what you know well, and letting creativity happen. Water, literally and metaphorically, allows us to do that.”

J.: It’s interesting that the concept of flow is a water metaphor. Any conversation about creativity and flow are just full of water metaphors, and I think it’s because we have this deep, fundamental evolutionary connection to water. It’s the matrix of life. It’s most of our bodies—if you don’t have water, you’re going to be dead within a week. So it makes sense that we would find the right spot relative to water to be both beautiful and satisfying, and allow us to drop our guard a bit.

That’s what flow is—relaxing into what you know well, and letting creativity happen. Water, literally and metaphorically, allows us to do that, and allows you to move in all different directions. It takes away this relentless field of gravity that’s dragging us down, making us feel heavy. When we’re in the water, we get relief from that. If we have physical injuries and barriers in the water, those go away. If we’re clumsy on land, in water we’re less so.

Everybody’s got a different answer to that question [of bringing water and flow into their lives], and it’s not surfing for everyone. [It could be] getting into a pool down the street and having a conversation with someone, getting out to the edge of a river that runs through your city and holding a meeting there instead of in a cubicle, or sitting out by an urban fountain.

I find urban fountains to be underutilized sources of creative conversations. When you sit on the bench near an urban fountain, you’re kind of in a privacy bubble with the person that you’re with, and somebody literally eight feet away can’t hear your conversation because of the sound of the water. In this world of decreasing privacy and lack of solitude, just sitting by a fountain in the middle of the city can afford you that sense of intimacy in conversation, whether it’s with a loved one or a coworker. That intimacy, that connection, allows us to open up into a whole new kind of interaction, maybe a better-quality conversation.

There is an endless list of possible tools and applications to this broad idea of bringing more water into your life. It doesn’t require a tropical vacation, and it certainly doesn’t always require a surfboard.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.