What do surfers, anglers, boaters and little kids in the shallow end of the pool know that the rest of us don’t? Playing in or near water is a surefire way to access creative states of “flow,” relaxation and bliss. I once knew this—most kids do—but was reminded on a recent family trip to western Maine.
To research a book I was writing about nature and the brain, I had borrowed a portable EEG cap that measures electroencephalography, or electrical activity captured in neural oscillations, better known as brain waves. Early one morning, I slipped into a kayak and paddled out onto a small lake bordering the White Mountain National Forest. The boat nosed through a foot of soft mist resting on the water’s surface. I couldn’t see my paddle blade, but I could hear its drips, and the birds on the approaching far bank.
I’d been wearing the black plastic EEG cap around in other settings, notably while walking in a couple of city parks and along a rural road, all over the course of several months, and no doubt to the curiosity of some dog walkers and joggers. But alpha waves—the ones prized by surfers, Buddhists and biofeedback enthusiasts—had proved elusive. Alphas are associated with a calm yet alert state, increased creativity and reduced depression. I was determined to generate some, because who wouldn’t want that?
In case I couldn’t already tell life was good, the EEG company’s rather detailed software report from the morning I paddled the lake told me I was finally getting closer to neural nirvana. It explained that in most people, alpha waves are hard to achieve when your brain is processing visual information. “However, your brain produced substantial alpha,” it told me, “even with your eyes open, suggesting that... you enter a relaxed state very easily.”
In other words, I had perhaps tricked the machine into thinking I was a yogi, but in reality, the water helped me out. Neuroscientists, environmental psychologists and coastal Realtors have long known we place a premium on water views, whether from ocean, lake or fancy fountain. Our connection to water is primal. It nourishes us, quenches us, comforts us, makes us expansive, reflective and connected to the very roots of time.
As Norman Maclean wrote in one of the most beautiful passages in contemporary literature, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters."
So, after a fashion, is evolutionary biologist and environmental activist Wallace J. Nichols, who investigates the research behind the aquatic connection in his book, Blue Mind. He stresses that our ties to water are rooted in deep time.
Which may be why we seem to prefer water over other natural elements, according to a 2010 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. When subjects looked at pictures of city and nature scenes, they reported the greatest sense of well-being and of restoration after viewing lakes and streams. Another study of 48 million people’s health records and geographical locations in the United Kingdom found that people living within 3 miles of the coast were healthier than those living farther away. The effect was strongest for people in economically deprived regions, according to their findings. What’s behind the effect? The University of Essex researchers believe coastal living helps reduce stress and inspires more exercise.
I can certainly relate. After paddling the lake in Maine, my kids and I swam in it later in the day. We jumped off the dock, made a raft out of foam noodles and listened for nesting loons. Water isn’t just for looking at. We can smell it and feel its mysteries through every inch of our bodies. We can float on it and we can ride atop it. Summer is the perfect time to immerse fully in this magical element and access both the childhood joy and the deep primordial memory of all living cells.