Are You Blue? Dive in to Find Out the Benefits of Blue Mind

Photo Courtesy: Wallace J. Nichols

By Lianne McCluskey, Swimming World College Intern.

Dr. Wallace J. Nichols is essentially a water guru. He has undertaken the unexpected title of ambassador for the wellness benefits of water, which is embodied in his concept of Blue Mind. Blue Mind is a mental state that he believes exists in all of us, whether we are aware of it or not. Nichols is the first person to research the science behind how being near, in, on or under water can make you happier, healthier, more connected and better at what humans do. His goal in life: to spread this news as common knowledge.


Photo Courtesy: Wallace J. Nichols

“Not everyone is fortunate enough to be exposed to water on a regular basis and feel the healing benefits of it,” said Nichols. To combat his recent personal stress, Nichols said he jumped into a creek to celebrate 11:11 p.m. the previous night near his home in Davenport, Calif. “Thank goodness for the water as a source of anxiety and stress-reduction in all of our lives. For all of us, I think it is the non-prescribed kind of medication that I hope someday will be prescribed more.”

He jokes that since he wrote a book about the psychological and physical benefits of being around water, he had better be practicing it in his daily life: “Water pulls the stress out of you and allows you to have a moment of mindfulness as long as it is coming into your life on purpose.”

Obviously there are times when water is not invited into our lives, like when your basement floods or a tsunami hits. Nichols says:

The best comparison that I can give is that music can be medicine as well, but if it is music you hate, is too loud, or the wrong music for the wrong time, it’s annoying. It’s great when you want it, in a place where you want it, and how you want it – water is exactly the same. If you are thrown in to water and don’t want to be, or it takes over your personal space when you don’t want it to, that is not Blue Mind. A lot of stress is caused by feeling out of control in whatever capacity that occurs. You can think of many ways that manifests in our lives, and it creates psychological stress that is debilitating.

For the most part, water is a relief from this debilitating stress. In his book Blue Mind, Nichols uses scientific studies to support various anecdotes from people demonstrating the benefits of water. He discusses how people with autism and other limited mobilities find an entirely different situation when they get in the water.

For addicts, swimming or surfing can feel like a moment of escape and relief, and that is part of the medicinal effect of the water.


Photo Courtesy: Summer Sanders

“I have experienced and been fortunate to have great guides who intuitively have brought a lot of water to my life. I realize that is not true for everybody or even the majority of people,” said Nichols. However, he has found even friends who live close to the ocean don’t allow themselves the time to go visit the water and experience its ability to induce the state of Blue Mind in ways that will be productive to the daily routine.

Since Nichols had been privileged to have water in his life through the years, he pondered which career path would maintain his love for the water. “Pro surfer was not in the cards,” he said with a laugh, so it’s no surprise that he decided to become a marine biologist instead.

As a scientist, Nichols noticed that something interesting happened with his friends and colleagues around the water and was curious about the physiology behind it. Having experience with music therapy, he thought, “Maybe water and music have a similar effect in our brain.” When he went to look for books and studies about the affect of water on the brain, he found nothing.

“I tried to get other people to write it and failed at that, so the default was to write it myself,” he says. He entertained the idea of organizing an academic conference where he could get everyone to write a chapter but realized it would basically be something that nobody would read. Yet Nichols knew this concept was more important than that.

“Academia tends to like to identify and describe problems but not solve. I am more interested in solving problems rather than pointing at them,” Nichols explains.

In his national best seller Blue Mind, Nichols intends to spread the knowledge of benefits of water to as many people as possible based on peer-reviewed science while weaving in personal stories of people he has met over the past decade.


Photo Courtesy: Wallace J. Nichols

His next book, titled Live Blue, delves more into how to practice Blue Mind rather than explain it. “It is about how to live a blue-minded life wherever you are,” said Nichols. It comes down to reminding people to prioritize it. “Rather than taking a pill when you’re stressed, run the bathtub.”

In Live Blue, Nichols explains his concept of the seven ages of water, going through a human life cycle through the lens of water:

The Seven Ages of Water

Age 1: BIRTH ~ During conception, gestation, delivery, for babies and toddlers, it’s a watery situation.

Age 2: PLAY ~ Encompassing childhood and adolescence, but the best minds never stop playing. Water, of course, always makes play better.

Age 3: THE LOVER ~ When our passions for life, ideas, places and each other deepen. Water is often the backdrop to finding lifelong passions and romances.

Age 4: THE FIGHTER ~ As athletes, advocates or warriors, we learn to fight for what we love most, but every successful warrior knows that humility and rest are sacred. Water provides both.

Age 5: THE JUSTICE ~ With accumulated wisdom and experience, we balance the weight of the world.

Age 6: EBB & FLOW ~ Water is medicine. As the body and mind begin to slow, gravity becomes our enemy. We can crash at any time, but water is still our old friend no matter what ails us throughout every age of life.

Age 7: DEATH ~ From our last breath through memorialization and grief, it’s back to the source: water. Water provides a backdrop to reconciliation, consilience, and remembrance as we honor those we’ve lost.

Photo Courtesy: Tim Geers

Since beginning this project, Nichols said he prioritizes his Blue Mind wherever he travels as well as at home – it is incorporated into his routine. He says the greatest gifts of taking on this project has been the richness of conversations people share with him about their own water experiences.

Nichols then brings up that in much of society, there is more “Red Mind” and “Grey Mind” (stressful or melancholic states) rather than Blue Mind.

“I haven’t met anyone who says they have it covered, or ‘I have enough Blue Mind and no Red Mind,'” said Nichols. “Even people who surf all the time, everyone is feeling Red Mind that they would rather not have, and a lot of people only operate in that mode. Nichols said that the results of Red Mind are distraction, irritability, anxiety and stress, which leads to depression. “Then that leads to self-medication in ways that are not positive and lead to addiction, more Red and Grey Mind, and then burnout.”

Neuroscientist Catherine Franssen teamed up with World Surfing Reserves ambassador João De Macedo to further describe the differences between the two states Nichols likes to call Blue Mind and Red Mind, particularly how these two mental “maps” show up on or around water. Franssen, an expert on the biology of physical and mental stress, started off by further defining Red Mind as an “edgy high characterized by stress, anxiety, fear, and maybe even a little bit of anger and despair.”

Franssen goes on to explain that our neuroendocrine system has been built and evolved for a reason; the Red Mind hormones are essential for escaping predators and finding and fighting for food and mates. We need this stress response. It is important, but in today’s world of non-life-threatening stressors, the same biological system gets activated. Our Red Mind stress response is turned on repeatedly every day. Little stressors keep us in an agitated state, which is why activating our Blue Mind is so important to combating those stresses.

As swimmers can attest, adding the competitive layer to any activity can take you right out of the enjoyment – the psychological benefits can go away. Additionally, people are constantly distracted by technology in their daily lives, even in the natural, green space world. Being in the water is the last little refuge of solitude and privacy we have, because we cannot be overstimulated and distracted by technology and the virtual world when we are submerged in water. All we have is ourselves and the water. 

The escape that water provides is always available wherever you are. Just taking a walk around the lake in your town is beneficial. Nichols closes with this statement:

Our goal is to make Blue Mind common knowledge. It’s another tool in your toolbox. If you don’t have some kind of relationship with water that you regularly enjoy throughout your life, you are missing something. Live Blue is really about making this conversation common knowledge, and common knowledge is understanding why things are a certain way.

Blue Mind is a way to experience reality in the purest form. On December 7, Nichols will lead off a 24-hour Blue Mind-A-Thon to dig in to the subject further and experiment through livestream conversations with people, showing videos and answering questions about Blue Mind. For more information on Blue Mind Works and the impact of Blue Mind, visit their site by clicking here.

All commentaries and research are the opinion and research of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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Diego Latorre
5 years ago

One of the best gifts I have received from life is learning to jump in and swim it off.

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