Water & Our Emotions

The powerful and positive effects of our minds on water

••• Point Betsie Light Beach. Michaela Guzy

Some people love the ocean. Some people fear it. I love it, hate it, fear it, respect it, resent it, cherish it, loathe it, and frequently curse it. It brings out the best in me and sometimes the worst.

— ROZ SAVAGE

Beyond our evolutionary linkage to water, humans have deep emotional ties to being in its presence. Water delights us and inspires us (Pablo Neruda: “I need the sea because it teaches me”).

It consoles us and intimidates us (Vincent van Gogh: “The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore”). It creates feelings of awe, peace, and joy (The Beach Boys: “Catch a wave, and you’re sitting on top of the world”). But in almost all cases, when humans think of water — or hear water, or see water, or get in water, even taste and smell water — they feel something. These “instinctual and emotional responses . . . occur separately from rational and cognitive responses,” wrote Steven C. Bourassa, a professor of urban planning, in a seminal 1990 article in Environment and Behavior. These emotional responses to our environment arise from the oldest parts of our brain, and in fact can occur before any cognitive response arises. To understand our relationship to the environment, we must understand both our cognitive and emotional interactions with it.

This makes sense to me, as I’ve always been drawn to the stories and science of why we love the water. However, as a doctoral student studying evolutionary biology, wildlife ecology, and environmental economics, when I tried to weave emotion into my dissertation on the relationship between sea turtle ecology and coastal communities, I learned that academia had little room for feelings of any kind.

“Keep that fuzzy stuff out of your science, young man,” my advisors counseled. Emotion wasn’t rational. It wasn’t quantifiable. It wasn’t science.

Talk about a “sea change”: today cognitive neuroscientists have begun to understand how our emotions drive virtually every decision we make, from our morning cereal choice, to who we sit next to at a dinner party, to how sight, smell, and sound affect our mood. Today we are at the forefront of a wave of neuroscience that seeks to discover the biological bases of everything, from our political choices to our color preferences. They’re using tools like EEGs, MRIs, and fMRIs to observe the brain on music, the brain and art, the chemistry of prejudice, love, and meditation, and more. Daily these cutting-edge scientists are discovering why human beings interact with the world in the ways we do. And a few of them are now starting to examine the brain processes that underlie our connection to water. This research is not just to satisfy some intellectual curiosity. The study of our love for water has significant, real-world applications—for health, travel, real estate, creativity, childhood development, urban planning, the treatment of addiction and trauma, conservation, business, politics, religion, architecture, and more.

Most of all, it can lead to a deeper understanding of who we are and how our minds and emotions are shaped by our interaction with the most prevalent substance on our planet.

The journey in search of people and scientists who were eager to explore these questions has taken me from the sea turtles’ habitats on the coasts of Baja California, to the halls of the medical schools at Stanford, Harvard, and the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, to surfing and fishing and kayaking camps run for PTSD-afflicted veterans in Texas and California, to lakes and rivers and even swimming pools around the world. And everywhere I went, even on the airplanes connecting these locations, people would share their stories about water. Their eyes sparkled when they described the first time they visited a lake, ran through a sprinkler in the front yard, caught a turtle or a frog in the creek, held a fishing rod, or walked along a shore with a parent or boyfriend or girlfriend.

I came to believe that such stories were critical to science, because they help us make sense of the facts and put them in a context we can understand. It’s time to drop the old notions of separation between emotion and science — for ourselves and our future. Just as rivers join on their way to the ocean, to understand Blue Mind we need to draw together separate streams: analysis and affection; elation and experimentation; head and heart.

The Tohono O’odham (which means “desert people”) are Native Americans who reside primarily in the Sonoran Desert of southeastern Arizona and northwest Mexico. When I was a graduate student at the University of Arizona, I used to take young teens from the Tohono O’odham Nation across the border to the Sea of Cortez (the Gulf of California). Many of them had never seen the ocean before, and most were completely unprepared for the experience, both emotionally and in terms of having the right gear. On one field trip several of the kids didn’t bring swim trunks or shorts—they simply didn’t own any. So we all sat down on the beach next to the tide pools of Puerto Peñasco, I pulled out a knife, and we all cut the legs off our pants, right then and there.

Once in the shallow water we put on masks and snorkels (we’d brought enough for everyone), had a quick lesson on how to breathe through a snorkel, and then set out to have a look around. After a while I asked one young man how it was going. “I can’t see anything,” he said. Turns out he’d been keeping his eyes closed underwater. I told him that he could safely open his eyes even though his head was beneath the surface. He put his face under and started to look around. Suddenly he popped up, pulled off his mask, and started shouting about all the fish. He was laughing and crying at the same time as he shouted, “My planet is beautiful!” Then he slid his mask back over his eyes, put his head back into the water, and didn’t speak again for an hour.

My memory of that day, everything about it, is crystal clear. I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet it is for him, too. Our love of water had made an indelible stamp on us. His first time in the ocean felt like mine, all over again.

Dr. Wallace J. Nichols is a scientist, explorer, movement maker, silo-busting entrepreneur, and Dad. He is the author of the bestselling book Blue Mind and is on a mission to reconnect people to wild waters.