Scientists have explored everything from the sound of rolling waves to the molecular ions in the salty air, but is there a power even greater behind the sea’s ability to transform us? And can we harness that power to save the sea itself?
Originally published in Coastal Living.
IT DOESN’T TAKE A ROCKET SCIENTIST to tell us that a week at the beach makes us happier. Some of the reasons are obvious: We’re surrounded by beauty. We face no deadlines. We can take control of our days—sleeping in, taking walks, reading good (or trashy) books, eating fresh food.
But it does take a brain scientist, or maybe a few, to help us really understand why being near the water brings us such deep contentment. There’s been precious little research into this question, and not much talk among experts. Some studies have nibbled around the edges: The color blue has been shown to produce feelings of security and relaxation, and researchers have discovered that blood pressure and stress levels drop when people watch fish swimming in small aquariums. But interest in the bigger question—the connection between the ocean and the human psyche—is now picking up, thanks in large part to the efforts of a 45-year-old turtle biologist named Wallace J. Nichols, Ph.D.
Nichols works as a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences and is a devoted conservationist who’s known for talking openly about his passions rather than burying them under the dry rhetoric of science. As a child, he says, “I fell in love with the ocean,” both by visiting it with his family and then by “revisiting it in my imagination, sometimes with the help of Jacques Cousteau.” He wanted nothing more than to be on the water all day, and that fierce attachment set his career path in motion. As a student at Indiana’s DePauw University, he says, “I explored just about every waterway in the state. I snorkeled in ponds that I don’t think anybody has snorkeled in before or after.”
Once he reached graduate school, though, Nichols learned that, as a rule, the academic world was less interested in talking about feelings. “We share a very human experience with water that is often left unspoken at serious meetings,” he says. “You check all of the emotional stuff at the door.” Nichols considers this just-the-facts approach a lost opportunity. Deepening our understanding of the ways the sea affects our emotions would not only further science, he says; it would also make us better stewards of “our water planet.” He has coined the term “neuroconservation” to describe his vision: By studying what draws us to the ocean, we can then use that information to help save it.
So in 2011, Nichols gathered a bunch of bright thinkers in San Francisco to discuss Homo sapiens’ deep affinity for water. At this first annual Blue Mind Summit, marine scientists, brain researchers, environmental advocates, and other ocean experts bounced ideas off one another. A second round took place at North Carolina’s Outer Banks last spring, and a third is planned for Block Island in May. Nichols hopes these summits will serve as springboards to serious research. “My prediction,” he says, “is that in the next decade, we’ll produce some beautiful, important, interesting science related to our brains on water.” At the least, we will begin to look for serious explanations for the happiness we experience on the coast.
WHAT IS IT THAT MAKES A TRIP to the beach so restorative?
It could be acoustic. “There’s a lot of research that has parsed out what types of noise humans find pleasant and relaxing, and what types are considered noxious and stress-inducing,” says Shelley Batts, Ph.D., an auditory neuroscientist at Stanford University and a presenter at the first Blue Mind Summit. It turns out the most pleasurable sounds have predictable wave patterns, middling to low pitches, soft volumes, and harmonic frequencies at regular intervals—all characteristics of the ocean’s rhythms. Traffic and airplane noise prompts the body to release the stress hormone cortisol, she says, which in turn can lead to ulcers and heart disease. Ocean sounds, by contrast, actually decrease cortisol levels.
What we hear at the beach is not all about pitches and frequencies, though. “There’s also this emotional component,” Batts says. This hasn’t been well-documented, but the ocean’s sound “probably triggers deep memories or feelings of relaxation and safety. Some people might even say it’s recalling the womb and your mother’s heartbeat.” Scientists have scanned the brains of volunteers listening to ocean sounds versus traffic noise. Even though they had similar acoustic profiles, only the ocean sounds activated the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex, which is associated with (among other things) emotion and self-reflection.
Another key to our contentment might be the flat plane of the ocean’s surface. We have evolved as a species to find safety in environments of low complexity, says neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., a professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco. In dense woodlands, dangerous animals can hide amid the trees; in cities, we worry about criminals. But at the beach, there’s no place for a threat to lurk.
“We’re constructed, neurologically, to normalize our environment—to bring it under our control,” Merzenich says. “When we look out to the sea, or we’re along the strand, we’re in a predictable, stable environment.” Some visual elements stand out: a boat in the distance, a gull on the shore. But “anything that occurs against that background is easily recorded and easily interpreted.” As a result, the boat or bird produces “a special, sparkling” feeling rather than fear. That calming predictability involves all the senses—from the steadiness of the sound to the salt smell in the air.
It also includes the tactile sensation of sand between our toes. In fact, sand has such emotional power (even away from the beach) that it is sometimes used in psychotherapy. “Sand opens the door to the unconscious world,” Lauren Cunningham, founding editor of the Journal of Sandplay Therapy, has written. “Sand is impressionable, mutable, and impermanent.”
Jordan Grafman, Ph.D., director of brain-injury research at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, notes that large water bodies also have symbolic resonance. “What does the ocean present us with?” he asks. “Well, it’s mysterious. We can’t see it all. We can’t see below it.” That mysteriousness has beckoned explorers for thousands of years—and, even in this era of Google Maps, it continues to tug at us. Contemplating the ocean’s infinitude “helps us reflect and can lead to calmness or excitement—things that we know improve our mood,” says Grafman, who has studied depression and post-traumatic stress.
The root of our contentment might even be molecular, some researchers say. Ocean waves generate negative ions, charged air particles that have been linked to mental energy and emotional well-being. But others believe we should take a step back from the properties of the ocean itself. Instead, they suggest, the reason the beach brings us such pleasure is what we do when we get there.
FOR CATHERINE LOWRY FRANSSEN, Ph.D., the path to the ocean comes from two different directions: her experiments measuring how nature can affect rodent brains, and her research into how exercise helps humans cope with stress.
Franssen, a neuroscientist at Longwood University in Virginia, was curious about what happened to lab rodents whose cages were furnished with natural materials, like twigs from trees. “We’ve known for a long time that if you give mice and rats toys to play with, it enriches their brains,” she says. “They’re smarter because of that.” When she substituted real twigs for plastic toys, they exerted an even stronger effect—and not just on the animals’ intelligence. “We found that their stress levels changed,” Franssen says. “They had a bigger response to a predator odor—a life-or-death situation—and a smaller response to a non-life-threatening stimulus, an open field.” In other words, a little nature helped the creatures put different stresses into proper perspective.
“If we translate that from the mice to the human world, maybe if we include natural elements in our day-to-day lives, we can help recalibrate that stress response, so that we’re not sweating small stuff,” Franssen says. Digging in the sand and picking up shells might help us respond appropriately to real dangers—for example, if someone cuts us off in traffic. “But then we can also not freak out over every tiny little thing—walking to the mailbox to pick up the mortgage bill.”
While nature is one ingredient of a happier state of mind, so is physical activity—a beach trip shouldn’t be totally sedentary, says Franssen. “I do advocate moving in nature,” she says, even if it’s just a stroll along the strand. Her human research has measured the calming effect of exercise: Students who participated in activities like rock climbing had lower stress levels at exam time. “It makes everything else come into perspective,” she says.
Franssen wants to repeat her experiment with surfers. But she emphasizes that beach-goers don’t have to participate in intense sports to reap the benefits of exercise. “Our neurochemical stress response is telling our bodies to move—whether that’s taking a good long walk on the beach, boating, or something a little bit more extreme like surfing,” she says. “Lots of us have experienced this, right? You go on a beach vacation and you take bike rides, and you take walks, and you say, ‘Oh my gosh, even though I ate all this food, I was more physically active than I normally am in my life. I feel so good.’ You come back and find that, yes, the work’s piled up, but you’ve got a verve, an energy. You don’t melt down when the crisis comes.”
SCOTT HUETTEL, PH.D., ALSO STUDIES the brain, but his field of research focuses more on decisionmaking. As co-director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Duke University, Huettel is curious about how people assign value—not just to material objects, but also to experiences.
It’s relatively easy to gauge what a car or a pizza is worth; we know what it will sell for in the market. But putting a price tag on a beach vacation—not just the economic transactions, but the entire inner experience—is considerably harder. “If you say, ‘Would you trade that view you had of the sunset last night for $100,000?’, it’s just a philosophical question,” Huettel says. “You can’t trade it. It’s in your memory.”
But the brain itself doesn’t make such sharp distinctions between a pizza and a sunset. “Even though it seems like these are very different things,” he says, “your brain actually has a small module that seems to calculate goods and experiences in a way proportional to their underlying value.”
How does he determine this? Huettel shows volunteers photos, including beach landscapes, and uses brain-imaging technology to study how they process what they see. The brain’s frontal lobes determine the value of these scenes in surprisingly concrete terms. “Your experience seems to be encoded in the brain not just as some abstract aesthetic ‘this is pretty,’ but actually how much it’s worth to you,” Huettel says. Attractive images, like those of the ocean, tend to be worth a lot.
People generally underestimate the satisfaction they’ll get from activities like beach trips, compared to buying new stuff. Yet the rewards from travel continue long after we’ve returned home, in the form of memories. “It’s not just the vacation last week and then it’s gone,” Huettel says. “Every time you see a picture of that particular beach, or you go through your vacation albums, you’re going to have those good experiences again.”
Visually, beach scenes have what Huettel calls “intermediate-level complexity”—a flat expanse of ocean contrasting with a solitary tree or curving beach—which viewers find universally attractive. But he doesn’t believe that the visual appeal or any other physical attribute, such as negative ions, for example, explains the true magic of the beach. More important, he says, is that a week on vacation produces nostalgia rather than material things.
“To the extent that you can take action that can generate memories—whether that’s spending more time in the vacation home, or taking more trips, or inviting more friends to come share the experience—those things turn out to be the predictors of later-life satisfaction,” Huettel says. “It’s trite, but it’s not the stuff you have. It’s the memories you make.”
Postscript: In June 2014, Nichols will publish a book called Blue Mind, about the science of being near the water. Details here.