“Blue Mind” Meaning: The Mental State That Water Creates

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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What does “Blue Mind” mean? How is it different from “Red Mind”? What contributes to these mental states?

When you feel serene sitting at the beach, watching the waves, you’re likely experiencing Blue Mind. In his book Blue Mind, Wallace J. Nichols argues that water has a profound impact on our well-being and health because it induces a calming, meditative state, which he calls the Blue Mind state.

Read more to understand Blue Mind’s meaning and why such a phenomenon exists.

We’re Naturally Drawn to Water

Before we address Nichols’s explanation for Blue Mind’s meaning (as well as Red Mind’s meaning), let’s set the stage. According to Nichols, humans evolved to want to be near water because it’s necessary for our survival. Throughout history, we’ve naturally gravitated toward habitats that included water, such as lakes, rivers, and coasts. Water consumption is necessary for life, but there were other reasons humans as a whole were drawn to water, as well.

Experts suggest that water sources—along with open spaces with low grass and trees—make up part of a “universal landscape,” or a natural environment that has all the resources necessary to ensure humans’ survival. The accessible water source provides water for consumption as well as a source of marine food, the grass and trees offer food and room to attract and hunt prey, and the open spaces provide visual clearance to detect incoming predators. Forming communities near landscapes like this increased humans’ chances of survival, resulting in an evolutionary connection between humans and water.

(Shortform note: Some experts theorize that we not only evolved to want to be near water, but that water and the food it offered also caused us to evolve the way we did. They argue that the omega-3 fatty acids abundant in marine food nourished the human brain and allowed it to grow larger and more advanced than it ever had when we dwelt in forests and less water-centric landscapes. This suggests that water didn’t just help us survive—it helped us develop the large, complex brains that now distinguish us from other animals.)

The Meaning of “Blue Mind” and “Red Mind”

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.

He 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. The stress response, also known as the fight or flight response, is an important evolutionary feature that developed to help us deal with danger. It enabled us to defend ourselves from threats or remove ourselves from threatening situations by flooding our bodies with stress hormones like norepinephrine, glucocorticoids, and cortisol. These hormones enhance our senses and awareness so we can better cope with danger.

(Shortform note: Nichols may use the terms “Blue Mind” and “Red Mind” to describe states of calm and stress because these states are indeed so different as to be akin to using two different minds. The changes that chronic stress in particular brings about in the brain lead you to function very differently than you do when you’re not stressed. When you’re chronically stressed, the stress response that Nichols describes never shuts off, resulting in mood problems like depression and anxiety, as well as digestive issues and decreased libido and fertility. Again, the stress response isn’t inherently bad, but it is key that you be able to switch out of it into a Blue Mind state to avoid the negative side-effects of chronic stress.)

Exercise: How Do You Experience “Blue Mind”?

Reflect on your experience with the Blue Mind state and the ways you interact with water.

  1. Identify a water-based activity that you enjoy. This could be a sport like swimming or surfing, or something as simple as showering.
  2. Describe how this activity makes you feel. Does water help you relieve stress? How?
  3. Does water have a pleasant sensory impact? Describe this impact. Perhaps you enjoy the play of light on the water or the feeling of weightlessness when swimming.
  4. Consider how you could further incorporate water’s benefits into your life, and list them. You could take up a water-based hobby, listen to recordings of water sounds, or get involved in environmental activism to protect water sources.
“Blue Mind” Meaning: The Mental State That Water Creates

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  • 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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