Brain on Ocean
Man with umbrella looks out over Morecambe Bay. Credit: Katharina Brown

Brain on Ocean

What is it about a watery landscape that makes us pause in our footsteps?

As I’ve traveled in the U.K. for the past two months, far away from my landlocked home in the States, I’ve stood on a beach four times, sat by a river, peered off a dock, stared out the window at lakes and reservoirs, and crossed innumerable bridges. Every time the blue water draws my eye.

With an infinite number of shades and patterns, it’s no wonder water appeals. The ocean drowns our senses with contentment: the smell of salt, the soft sand between our toes, and the immense expanse of infinite waves invite us.

In his recent book, Blue Mindicon: 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, Wallace Nichols ponders the phenomenon of  one’s “brain on ocean.”

Nichols’ axiom that water is a tonic for the mind and body is difficult for me to criticize. His suggestion that water may be the sought-after quick cure for stress is enticing, particularly if you spend much of your life worrying. Even if you aren’t collapsing under the pressure, a bit of contemplation on a shoreline is balm for the soul.

Our love of creeks and ponds, lagoons and seas could have evolutionary roots. In philosopher Dennis Dutton’s TED talk, he discusses experiments in which people almost exclusively prefer landscapes with water. This could be because they imply the presence of food and provide a natural barrier against enemies.

But something in me cringes to think that water’s appeal can be chalked up to evolution. The evolutionary argument implies that what we think is beautiful is hardwired, set from birth – but I’d like to think that we have something of a choice. Nichols states that 80% of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of the coastline of an ocean, lake, or river, but this likely has more to do with convenience than appreciation of beauty. Most cities were built alongside rivers because of the trade route they offered, not because of the way the waters sparkled.

In northwest England and Wales, I couldn’t help noticing how empty the shorelines were. On a glorious midweek afternoon in July, I found Formby Beach, a sandy haven north of Liverpool, deserted. Another beach, Morecambe, has been in decline since the mid 1900s when the bayside town experienced a series of misfortunes. Although the views are expansive – from the massive sky to long strips of sandy beaches – the promenade was desolate. If such sights of water are fundamental to our happiness, why don’t people flock to Morecambe? Why haven’t companies rejuvenated the waterfront shops and restaurants?

The lack of response baffles me, as I’m sure it does those of you who also cannot resist walking along water. I’ve been to Morecambe three times and would recommend its stretch of shimmering blue and dramatic clouds to any visitor who wants a quiet retreat to the sea.

We pause, finally able to view our life from a vantage point, as we face the infinite ocean – perhaps that’s reason enough for its fascination.

Posted by Katharina Brown

Leave a Reply