I love the sea. For me, more than any other natural environment, the sea invokes feelings of wellbeing, creativity and calm; I can think of no better lullaby than the sound of the waves on the shore. I’m far from alone. Water has inspired painters, photographers, writers, poets and musicians for centuries, drawn to its mercurial landscape, elemental power and sublime beauty. But is there more to it than this? Marine biologist Wallace J Nichols thinks so.
Research suggests that our brains are hard-wired to respond positively to water and that being near it can ‘calm and connect us, increase innovation and insight, and even heal what’s broken’. Nichols refers to the state of mind that is triggered when we’re in or near water as a ‘blue mind’. He argues that the benefits of a blue mind go way beyond simple relaxation or having fun at the beach: to quote the title of his book in full, ‘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’.
Nichols believes that one of the many benefits of a blue mind is creativity. Being by water gives our brains a chance to rest from the over stimulation of modern-day living. Simplifying the sights and sounds our brain has to process frees it up for a different set of processes, activating the default mode network. This brain network is associated with daydreaming, imagination, consolidation of memories, self-referential thought, insight and introspection. This is why ideas that elude us while we’re sat at a desk often come to us when we jump in the shower or visit the coast. According to Nichols, “the shower is a proxy for the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean. You step in the shower, and you remove a lot of the visual stimulation of your day. Auditorially, it’s the same thing — it’s a steady stream of ‘blue noise.’ You’re not hearing voices or processing ideas. You step into the shower and it’s like a mini-vacation.”
Interestingly, some of my most creative ideas come to me when I’m doing mundane things like brushing my teeth or washing my hair – so much so that I’ve christened these flashes of inspiration ‘toothbrush moments’. I’ve also read that Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin admits to taking up to 8 showers a day to help prevent writer’s block when he’s working on a new script. I’d never made the connection between the inspiration I feel when I’m photographing the sea or a lake and the creativity that comes when the bathroom tap is running. Until now that is.
As well as unlocking creativity, Nichols believes that a blue mind can also make us feel more compassionate. By reminding us of the vastness of nature and our place in the universe, water makes us feel connected to something beyond ourselves; it switches our brains from a ‘me’ to a ‘we’ perspective, increasing our capacity for empathy.
It’s a fascinating subject that probably comes as no surprise to any photographer who has stood on an empty beach to watch the sunrise or battled against the wind on a stormy quay. But it’s nice to know there’s hard scientific research backing up those feelings – and that when you pick up your camera and head to the coast you’re doing yourselves – and others – the power of good.
Find out more about Wallace J Nichols: http://www.wallacejnichols.org