Why our brains do not like red-bottomed swimming pools

Courtesy of Kevin S. Weiner, PhD

Affiliations: Stanford University; Institute for Applied Neuroscience: Science for Good

In the midst of Ledecky’s dominance, Phelps’ comeback, and the rest of Pan Pacs hubbub, I ask the readers of SwimSwam: Would we all love swimming so much if the bottom of the pool were red? 

Blue Mind, a book about the brain on water, tackles this question and more importantly, sheds light on why we don’t mind staring at a black line on the bottom of the pool for hours and hours on end. The answer is quite simple: our brains love it.

Blue Mind is the brainchild of Wallace J. Nichols, PhD, a marine biologist, ocean advocate, and Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences. Several years ago, Blue Mind started out as a summit bringing together ocean scientists, brain scientists, tech experts, and ocean advocates. Now, Blue Mind is a book about the brain on water and it’s climbing the New York Times Best Seller list.

You’d be hard-pressed to find another book that starts with an image of the author jumping off a pier, fitted with a waterproof cap covered in electrodes, ready to get a rare snapshot of the human brain on water.

As a neuroscientist, I’m trained to read journal articles and books with a hard-nosed, fine-tooth comb, in order to poke holes in the arguments and details of scientific pieces. And even with that mindset, I can say that Nichols is gutsy and brilliant. Summarizing how functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) works in a little over four pages, in layperson’s terms no less, is something that most neuroscientists wouldn’t (and perhaps couldn’t) attempt. That’s like asking someone who’s only swum for two weeks in their life to try and make Olympic Trials. Nichols blows past an Olympic Trials cut. He flat out makes the Olympic Team. He explains fMRI more clearly than most brain experts I’ve seen, heard, and read. The utility of what Nichols does is that he connects the dots for us across research fields – making connections between the latest neuroscience research and recent findings in ecology, marine biology, psychology, and even ecopsychology. And the great part is, it’s not all science. Peppered throughout the book are personal stories about his own water experiences, as well as linkages to philosophy, poetry, and of course, swimming, quoting Michael Phelps and Duke Kahanamoku along the way.

BlueMind_bookcoverIn Blue Mind, Nichols takes us through why all humans seem to have a connection with water, whether they know it or not. Specifically, he speaks to the idea that we are born with an innate association between water and life. Our brains instinctually know this even if we consciously do not. He takes us through how this association not only improves the life of the mind, but can even heal aspects of the mind as well: he offers examples of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression (which he refers to as the Gray Mind), addiction, and autism, which have been shown to be helped by access to water. Relatedly, he also talks about ocean advocate and endurance waterman Bruckner Chase’s water education program, Ocean Heroes, which aims to educate people about ocean safety.

Nichols goes even further to explain how this association between water and life can make us feel more attentive, creative, and connected as people. This positive association with water is not just triggered by being submerged in the water. It can also be triggered by the sights, sounds, and texture of water, activating what he calls our ‘Blue Minds, ‘ which takes us to a positive mental state we associate with being in the water even though we are on land. I think as swimmers and water-people, we all intuitively know this. However, Nichols provides the scientific evidence that empirically support these intuitions.

Nichols also gives the reader insight into what’s going on in the brain during different experiences in the water. For example, he talks about how our amygdala triggers our ‘Red Mind’, which is a state that would make us paddle to shore as fast as possible the first time we saw a dorsal fin near us in the water. Or how the firing of our neural circuitry associated with reward, stochastically moves us as we move through the water and how that same neural cascade actually slows down time, which makes us experience that euphoric feeling of being ‘in the flow.’ This feeling of being in the flow is a multi-sensory integration of sights, sounds, feelings, smells, and even tastes. This integration is also the reason why a red-bottomed pool would not trigger the same feelings we get with a blue-bottomed pool. The associations that the brain learns and links through experience continue to integrate and to shape our every day life, which includes our sports and passions.

For water-people, blue itself triggers aspects of our neural circuitry that bring us peace when we’re in the water. A red-bottomed pool triggers an error in what our brain predicts and in turn, triggers a series of neural events that require us to re-shape both our expectations as well what triggers the pleasure we get from being in the water. For example, one (if not the only) red-bottomed pool is located in a boutique hotel in Thailand. It’s often referred to as eerie and blood-red, which is not exactly peaceful. Nichols takes us through all of this and more through Blue Mind. All the while, Nichols’ voice is confident and humbling. It’s clear his goal is to educate and to share his love for the water with the world. That alone would keep you turning pages, but the evidence he provides and the story he weaves will surely keep your eyes, brains, and fingers occupied.

The fundamental question addressed in Blue Mind, according to Nichols is: “What happens when our most complex organ – the brain – meets the planet’s largest feature – water?” Nichols more than adequately answers this question and presents his claims in a way that I don’t think any other writer or scientist could – by including something for each type of reader. If you want to read about the latest in neuroscience research such as default mode networks, it’s in there. If you want to read about water and emotions, it’s in there. If you want to read about ocean advocacy, it’s in there. If you want to read about why you will pay more for waterfront property (and what in your brain is telling you to do so), it’s in there. If you even want to know why water is bad for some people, it’s in there too (albeit less so).

In this golden age of brain science, swimming products are latching on to neuroscience trends (such as Ikkos) and swimmers are bringing aspects of brain training into their reflections of Olympic successes. Blue Mind adds levels of empirical support for why we love water and is the type of book with so much rich, diverse content that you could come back to it again and again and learn something new that you may have missed on the first read. And that’s appropriate since that’s what keeps us all coming back to that black line – to get our blue on in a slightly different way than we did the last time. So go ahead, jump in, and learn about your own Blue Mind.

Blue Mind: 352 pages; published by Little, Brown and Company.

You can find all the different ways to order either hard copies or digital versions here: http://www.wallacejnichols.org/126/585/bluemind.html

About Kevin S. Weiner

Kevin is a neuroscientist at Stanford University and the director of Public Communications at the Institute for Applied Neuroscience (scienceforgood.org). He is a former captain of both Peddie (2000) and Princeton (2004). He presently swims for Stanford Masters.

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9 years ago

Ginarhinestone, “If you even want to know why water is bad for some people, it’s in there too (albeit less so).”

Your reminders seem to be covered?

I also can’t imagine even the most water loving person being able to with stand the torture of water boarding..

9 years ago

Water immersion is torture for some cultures so maybe it is not so wired into our brains. There is a reason water boarding is used & a reason baptism is meant to be catatonic.

So many people ask me( & all swimmers) why , just why? Why do 100 laps for nothing. what do you see , what do you think . My answer is a because I do , becauseI can & I don’t think of anything at all.( sometimes a post on the net that I might have read that morning) .

But if this book makes me look better / intrinsic / philosophical then go for it .

On a prosaic note , there are people… Read more »

Tony Rezek
9 years ago

So, an article that mentions red-bottomed swimming pools in the headline, features a picture of red-headed family of swimmers….

Steve West
9 years ago

Yes Carly…. those are my kids… I had Mike Lewis do a photo shoot for my family holiday card last fall… the shots turned out pretty great!

9 years ago

Is that photo Steve West & his kids? Very cute 🙂