The Blue Mind Effect: Why We’re Naturally Drawn to Water

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Blue Mind" by Wallace J. Nichols. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why do humans find water appealing? How does it engage our senses?

Humans are attracted to the way water looks, feels, and sounds. Wallace J. Nichols calls this the Blue Mind effect. He lays out the multifaceted appeal of water in his book Blue Mind, explaining that our attraction to water goes beyond our need to survive.

Read on to learn about the fascinating phenomenon of the Blue Mind effect.

The Blue Mind Effect

Throughout history, humans have naturally gravitated toward habitats that included water. Nichols uses the term “Blue Mind” to describe water’s impact on the brain. Blue Mind is a calm, peaceful, contented state similar to one achieved through meditation, and it can be induced by proximity to water. Water is enticing to us because it reduces stress and heals the mind. Also, it has a powerful sensory appeal. All of these qualities of water contribute to the Blue Mind effect.

Water Combats Stress & Heals the Mind

Nichols distinguishes Blue Mind from “Red Mind,” which is a mental state characterized by stress and arousal, and he presents the Blue Mind state as a potent antidote to the detrimental effects of the Red Mind state.

Nichols suggests that engaging with nature, particularly water, can mitigate the stress response. Extensive research using self-reported results, brain scans, and other tests shows that time spent in nature gives the brain a rest from stress, activating the parts of the brain that deal with empathy and pleasure, which calms the brain and nervous system.

You can achieve these effects not only by immersing yourself in nature through activities like fishing or snorkeling, but also by spending time in places like aquariums or near fountains, and even by looking at images of natural landscapes or listening to nature sounds.

Water’s Visual Appeal

Nichols explains that even looking at images of water can provide the positive psychological effects of the Blue Mind state. The color blue itself is calming to us. Psychological and marketing research shows that people associate the color blue with concepts like cleanliness, openness, strength, trust, and wisdom, and that blue is the most popular favorite color worldwide by a large margin. 

Some experts theorize that people feel so positively toward the color blue because, between the blue sky and the blue water that covers most of our planet, we evolved surrounded largely by shades of this color, so we find it comforting on a biological level.

Ecological Valence Theory: Color Preferences Vary With Our Experiences

Nichols implies that our attraction to the color blue is innate, but some research indicates that there may be a social component to color preference. Ecological valence theory indicates that we prefer colors that we associate with our individual positive experiences (as opposed to genetically ingrained positive associations from our evolution), and it’s supported by research that shows our color preferences can change over time and vary across cultures.

For example, if a young boy tries to pick out a pink toy at the store but is scolded by his parent because they believe pink is for girls, the boy is likely to have a lower preference for the color pink because he has a negative experience associated with it. Alternatively, if someone has a wonderful vacation at the beach, they may come to associate the blue color of the sea with a sense of happiness. While blue is still the most widely favored color worldwide, ecological valence theory suggests that this is a subjective, experiential tendency rather than a biological one.

Water also appeals to our visual sense because of its shiny, reflective surface and the way it gently moves. Nichols explains that we’re naturally mesmerized by the simultaneously changing and repeating patterns we see on the surface of water and that watching these patterns engages our involuntary attention and calms and relaxes the mind. 

(Shortform note: The appealing nature of water’s shininess may explain why we like shiny objects like jewelry. Studies in consumer behavior led researchers to conclude that shiny or glossy objects remind us of fresh water and that our liking for such objects increases when we’re thirsty (suggesting a psychological association with water).)

Water’s Buoyant Appeal

The physical sensation of being in water is also very pleasing, writes Nichols. Because the human body is made up largely of water, and because the fat in our bodies and the air in our lungs are both lighter than water, we float, allowing us to enjoy a sense of weightlessness. Flotation—or the practice of floating motionless in water for extended periods—is often used to treat chronic pain, stress, injury, depression, and even conditions like ADHD and PTSD

(Shortform note: Flotation appears to directly impact stress by shifting the brain from the fight or flight state into a “rest and recover” state. In this way, it turns off the body’s stress response, along with the negative side effects that come with it. However, not everyone floats as easily as others. People with a greater amount of muscle or a lower amount of fat are more likely to sink, which can increase the risk of drowning.)

Water’s Auditory Appeal

According to Nichols, the sound of water also appeals to us for many reasons. One of these is that we first heard the sounds of water when we were floating in utero as fetuses, so those sounds are deeply comforting as they remind us of being in the womb. 

(Shortform note: Fetuses are also exposed to sounds like their mother’s heartbeat and the sound of her breathing, which may help explain why we find other natural sounds, like wind, soothing, as well as why white noise can be an effective way to soothe a baby.)

Additionally, since the sounds of water tend to be gentle, regular, quiet, and mid-to-low frequency, they’re inherently pleasing to our ears. Conversely, we’re frequently exposed to sounds that are overly loud, harsh, high-pitched, or arrhythmic in our daily lives from sources such as traffic and machinery. Pleasant sounds like those from water—whether it’s the sound of ocean waves, a waterfall, or a babbling brook—can improve mood, relaxation, and concentration.

(Shortform note: Research shows how water sounds improve mood neurologically by demonstrating a direct link between auditory input and emotion: The auditory cortex activates the amygdala, the brain structure involved in emotional processing. In studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging scans, participants identified the sound of flowing water as one of the most pleasant sounds alongside a baby’s laugh and thunder. They identified machine sounds like electric drills and traffic sounds like squealing brakes as being among the most unpleasant.)

The Blue Mind Effect: Why We’re Naturally Drawn to Water

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Wallace J. Nichols's "Blue Mind" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Blue Mind summary:

  • How water has a profound impact on our well-being and health
  • Society’s relationship with water and how it might be improved
  • Activities you can do in or around water to reap the healing benefits

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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