I’ve always been drawn to the water. Primarily the ocean. When my family moved to California when I was in Junior High, I would spend hours at the beach, watching the waves roll in, hypnotized by the rhythmic sound of the water crashing, and mesmerized by the beauty of the ocean.
When I learned to surf at the age of 35, I remember the first time that I paddled out the back. While the trip through the whitewater and the crashing waves on the inside often felt like a battle, once I passed the point where the waves broke, it was so peaceful.
I could sit for hours on my board – watching the lumps of water roll in and change shape, watching my fellow surfers paddle and start to stand up and then disappear down the other side of a wave, and watching the coastline from a new vantage point. My world would go into slow motion and I could finally breathe – really breathe and let my shoulders drop from ears.
I came home from my trip obsessed with surfing and compelled by a need to be near the water. There was something magical about being in and near the water and witness the power of the ocean up-close. It made me feel small (in comparison to Mother Ocean) and highly connected to nature at the same time.
Apparently, I’m not alone. Water has always been a refuge for people throughout history – a place to think, relax, enjoy time with friends and family, and reconnect with ourselves. And for good reason too. New research shows that our brain is instinctively pulled to the water.
In his new 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, California biologist Wallace J. Nichols dives into research, anecdotes, and personal experience about the cognitive, physiological and emotional benefits we derive when we’re on, in, or near water.
While the science is still evolving, there are some interesting findings that may explain why we are drawn to the water and why sports like surfing have the ability to enchant us:
- Being in the presence of nature stimulates our brain in the same way when we are in the presence of someone we love.
- Being near water floods our brains with feel-good hormones like serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. At the same time, levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with stress, drops.
- Our brain prefers the color blue above all other colors.
- Our brain enters into a mildly meditative state when we are exposed to water, which may help you reap some of the benefits of meditation.
In our modern world, we often experience the opposite of the above. We’re chronically stressed and always “super busy”. We’re hyper-stimulated and over-connected. We sit too long at our desks indoors, rushing against the clock or deadlines. We barely have time to breath. This is what Nichols describes as “Red Mind.” It is the opposite of what our minds and bodies naturally crave – a Blue Mind, one in which we are unplugged but connected to nature and life around us and one that we enter in the presence of water.
It’s nice to know that our gut-pull to the ocean and to surfing is backed up by research and experience. Next time you head out for your surf session, know that you’re not only doing something exhilarating and good for your body, but you’re nurturing a state of mind that will make you happier, healthier and less stressed. In today’s rush-rush world, it may be even more important and necessary, to find time to be near the water.
Christine Yu is a freelance writer, mom of two boys, runner and yoga instructor. She is also the author of the blog Love, Life, Surf where she shares stories about life, family and fitness and inspires others to embrace their choice to be happy and healthy. She learned to surf at 35 and immediately became enchanted by all things surf.