I’m lucky enough to live close to a lovely beach, so all through lockdown I was able to stroll down to the sea whenever I felt like it. Since it began to ease, however, my neighbourhood has been crammed with visitors who have driven for hours just to sit on the sand and dip their toes in the water for a little while.
Recent events have shown that when we are deprived of access to watery places, as during lockdown, reaching a beach, river or lake can become an obsessive pursuit. Why else drive hundreds of miles to reach Durdle Door (pictured) when you know you will probably be turned away when you get there?
So why are many people so desperate to get to the nearest body of water? One answer may lie in the notion of of ‘blue mind’.
The term was coined by Wallace J Nichols, a marine biologist and wild water advocate based at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. He believes that water makes you happier, more connected and better at what you do.
Usually, when we think of environmental well-being, we visualise the colour green – trees, parks, gardens and other verdant landscapes. But less attention has been paid to “blue” areas such as beaches, lakes, rivers and the ocean. In recent years, the study of the impact of blue space on human health and well-being has grown. The Blue Mind, says Nichols, is about the “human-ocean connection”, a powerful emotional bond akin to biophilia, our deep genetic attraction to nature.
This kind of research is attracting marine biologists, conservationists, artists, urban planners – indeed, anyone interested in the relationship between humanity and our watery planet. The interdisciplinary Blue Gym project at the University of Exeter Medical School, investigated the psychological and physical health benefits of exposure to natural water environments. They have found, for example, that the stress levels of people living in coastal communities may be lower than normal simply because they spend more of their leisure time near, or even in, the sea.
In the same vein, in 2013 the NHS funded a pilot programme that prescribes surfing lessons for young people with depression and low self-esteem. Based in Dorset, the Wave Project was open to people aged between eight and 21 who have been referred by mental health services, schools or social services.
But not all of us have easy access to watery places, so how can we get a similar fix?
In his book, Blue Mind, Nichols also explains the benefits of simply looking at images of seas, lakes and rivers. For example, he describes an experiment at Plymouth University in 2010 where 40 adults were asked to rate pictures of different natural and urban environments. The researchers found that any picture containing water triggered higher ratings for positive mood, preference and perceived restorativeness, than those images with no water, no matter whether they were shown in a natural landscape or an urban setting. In 2013, I wrote an article for Aeon showing how other experiments have supported these findings.
As autumn sets in and winter looms up behind it, we will probably feel this deprivation even more strongly. What can be done? My research has shown that this is a good time to seek out some digital blue mind for yourself, whether it’s watching the Blue Planet on TV for the umpteenth time, or playing watery video games, or just looking at the beach on Instagram or your favourite webcams.
Find out how to soothe your Blue Mind in my book “Nature and the Digital Life: How to feel better without logging off”