There's no better way to describe our aquatic metropolis than in the words of the ancient mariner: "Water, water every where." Here in Miami, water is kind of our thing. It washes up on our shores, soaks us from above, floods businesses on Alton Road. And eventually, we'll be under it altogether.
But in the meantime, water is our best asset. And according to the author, conservationist, and marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, its influence on the human mind and heart is pretty astounding. His New York Times 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, outlines the myriad ways water can improve our lives. We caught up with Wallace while he was in town to speak with him about water's ability to reduce stress, red mind versus blue mind, and why Miamians don't seem to be reaping the rewards of our waterlogged locale.
Nichols became a marine biologist, in large part, because of his love of water. When he wanted to delve a little deeper into the concept of how water affects us, he found nothing about the subject. No books and no one willing to write one. So he decided to write it himself.
Courtesy of Wallace J. Nichols
"It turns out neuroscientists hadn't really studied the single most important feature on our planet -- water. They'd studied our brains on red wine, our brains on stress, our brains on happiness, our brains on music -- but they hadn't studied our brains on water. Initially there was a lot of connecting the dots, I guess you could say."
Nichols interviewed neurologists, biologists, psychologists, athletes, veterans, and artists, all in an attempt to answer the question, how does water affect us?
"The simplest way to describe it is, when we're at the water or in the water or at the edge of the water, we experience a much more simplified environment. Auditorily and visually, in particular, it's much more simple -- it gives your brain a break."
All the distractions in the world occupy bandwidth in our brains, Nichols explains, and the presence of water frees up that space.
"That doesn't mean your brain turns off, but it allows it to do some other kinds of work, a different kind of thinking, which is what neuroscientists call 'the default mode network'. That's a network of brain regions that become active -- they're good at doing a whole different kind of thinking," he says.
Nichols calls the phenomenon of our brains on water "blue mind" and the alternative, stressful state (that's all too familiar to many of us) "red mind."
"We become more self-referential, more creative, more innovative. We have insights and epiphanies at a higher rate when we're in our default, 'blue mind' setting than when we're in our 'red mind' setting," he says.
Courtesy of Wallace J. Nichols
"If you're in crisis mode or deadline mode or frantic text-messaging mode, your brain doesn't create poetry. It's in fight-or-flight response," he says. "When we get away from 'red mind,' then it's a different quality of thought -- lower stress, lower heart rate, lower breathing rate when the default mode network is active. So that's the fundamental shift -- an agitated state to a mildly meditative, relaxed state."
So if water is so beneficial, why are so many Miamians stressed-out messes?
"Urban environments can be very stressful, and culturally we can create all kinds of physical and psychological stress. A lot of that can happen next to the water," he says.
"Stress comes in all places and all forms. The question about stress is, how do you deal with it?"
Obviously in Miami, we have the beach at our fingertips, but not everyone takes advantage. The key is recognizing the water that surrounds you, Nichols says. More time taken to appreciate water means more happiness.
"A lot of people forget about [the ocean]. They take it for granted, and some people feel like they don't really have access to it for cultural reasons. 'I'm not a swimmer, I'm not a surfer, my family doesn't go to the beach.' Or some people, maybe they go to the beach but they don't want to put their telephone down. They stay connected to email, Facebook -- so they're walking down the beach with their face in a phone."
That negates the meditative benefits of water, he explains. Mindfulness is key.
This idea of the power of water also ties into the importance of protecting it, Nichols says. When we devalue water, we abuse it -- which is why we all need to become more aware.
"If you start to understand the 'blue mind' concept and keep your eyes open to notice water in your life -- whether it's an urban fountain or the ocean or a glass of water from the tap -- it can be a reminder to be more mindful, more aware. We are mostly made of water, our brains especially, and if we're more mindful of that, we'll take better care of it."
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