Whitewater Is Magic

It may sound paradoxical, but one of the best ways to get you out of the blues is, well, being near the blue, according to emerging research.


“We are starting to do brain scans…in response to [people] looking at images of coastal environments,” Mathew White, senior lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School, told the BBC. “In the lab, we’ve shown people prefer aquatic and water scenes…people are drawn to the color blue.”


White and his research team at the European Center for Environment and Human Health began investigating the neurocognitive effects of water, what they call “Blue Gym,” in 2010. In one study, the team showed people 120 photos of urban and natural scenes both with water (rivers, lakes, oceans) and without. In fact, not only did the subjects prefer the photos with water, but they also liked cityscapes with water as much as they did peaceful nature scenes, like mountains, without water.
“Water makes you happier, healthier, more connected to other people, and better at what you do,” Wallace J. Nichols, Ph.D. and the author of Blue Mind, told Shape magazine. One reason for that is water’s ability to give our brains a rest from the myriad distractions of daily living. Other things like art, music and nature can do the same, but water combines all of those elements into one, Nichols says, making it the best reset button for our brains.


Of course, while looking at and hearing the images and sounds of water can be soothing, nothing quite beats the real deal.


“People report better moods when taking a walk near the river than in many natural areas,” White told Outside magazine. But people are more than simply drawn to water. White added that just being near the water can release our “feel-good” hormones such as dopamine. Listening to its rhythm and appreciating its curves, color and texture also encourage “mind-wandering,” an excellent way to boost creativity and innovation. According to Nichols, studies at Stanford University have begun exploring that sense of awe we feel when standing by a river, noting its ability to influence our perception of time and the way we feel about ourselves as well as others.

In the right context, water can also do more than soothe and restore us. The adrenaline that surges through the body when we raft through whitewater rapids can improve our cognitive function, memory and even immune system, says Real Causes, Real Cure author, Jacob Teitelbaum, Ph.D. It also reshapes our perception of what really is worth worrying about. It’s hard to stress about answering emails on Monday when the weekend’s memories of plunging over cascades and waterfalls are still fresh!