The link between biophilia and the “Blue Mind”
Imagine you are tasked with drawing Planet Earth. You are given a blank piece of paper and a full set of crayons containing every color you can imagine. Which colors do you reach for first? If you’ve been through an elementary school science class, you’ll probably say blue and green, right? Blue for the waters — accounting for 71% of the earth’s surface, and green to represent the land — an enduring component of life since the beginning of time. It stands to reason that these colors are inextricably linked to our inherent connection to nature. In this article, we’ll look into the power of both colors — green, a representation of the natural world, and blue, a symbol of water and its impact on our well-being.
The psychology of color
Green and blue are similar in that they both have shorter wavelengths and are characterized as “relaxing or cool.”² While there are some negative connotations associated with both, (think “having the blues” or “green with envy”) their connection to nature brings us a sense of calm. Ophthalmological science backs up that notion — looking at colors like green and blue that have short wavelengths requires less retinal adjustment and is, therefore, less taxing to the eyes than looking at longer wavelength colors like red.⁴
In his book “Blue Mind,” Dr. Wallace J. Nichols tells the story of a quarry pool in Harpur Hill with turquoise water. Though it looked beautiful in color, the water was filled with trash and dead animals. What’s more, its pH level was similar to that of ammonia. The city posted many signs, advising against swimming in the quarry. They warned of skin and eye irritations, fungal infections, and stomach problems, but the color of the water enchanted visitors. They continued to swim despite the warnings. Only by dying the pool black was the local government finally able to keep people out of the water. Without the mesmerizing turquoise hue, people were much less inclined to take a swim.
As humans, we are drawn to these shades. Dr. Amir Vokshoor, a neurosurgeon specializing in minimalistic brain and spine surgery, theorizes that human evolution in the natural environment gave rise to the positive feelings and emotions humans have in response to earth tones. Humans have evolved in amongst the blue shades of water and sky and the green tones of the earth.¹ It is this engrained familiarity that brings us comfort.
What is “biophilia”?
As defined by Edward O. Wilson, the “father of biophilia”, biophilia is “the innate affiliation people seek with other organisms and especially the natural world.” For centuries, our ancestors relied on the natural environment for food, shelter, and all other survival necessities. Scholars believe that it is this nature dependency that evolved into the connection humans seek today. Though we’ve evolved significantly since those early days, there is still something within us that craves and demands connection to the natural world.
To learn more about people who spend a great deal of time indoors, specifically in offices, we completed a research study in which we discovered that the average office worker spends about 47 minutes outdoors during the workday. That is less than the amount mandated each day for prisoners by the U.N. guidelines. When people spend that much time indoors, it is vital that they get some sort of supplemental access to nature.
Fortunately, studies have found that reaping the benefits of nature doesn’t necessarily require being outdoors. “The sense of connection you have with the natural world seems to contribute to happiness even when you’re not physically immersed in nature,” says Lisa Nisbet, Ph.D.³
- Lower stress
- Improved attention and memory
- Greater cooperation
- Better mood
- Increased productivity
With this in mind, we can reshape how we think about and interact with our environments.
What is “Blue Mind”?
What Edward O. Wilson is to biophilia, Wallace J. Nichols, Ph.D. is to the “Blue Mind.” In his book “Blue Mind,” he defines the concept as “a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment…inspired by water and elements associated with water.”¹ The effect illustrates why an estimated 80% of the world’s population lives within sixty miles of a waterbody coastline. Similar to the human-nature connection, characteristic of biophilia, humans have an innate desire to be near water.
The concept of Blue Mind directly contrasts that of “Red Mind,” a state described by neuroscientist Catherine Franssen, Ph.D. as an “edgy high, characterized by stress, anxiety, fear, and maybe even a little bit of anger and despair.”
Earlier in evolution, humans needed the “Red Mind” hormones in order to survive — whether it was fighting for food or quite literally running for their lives (away from predators). Today, we don’t necessarily need those stress hormones for such dire circumstances, but we are still able to activate these same systems with more mundane stressors. “The same physiological stress response that we use[d] to run away from a lion on the Serengeti is activated when the mortgage bill shows up in the mail.”¹
Because everyday stressors can have these extreme effects on our bodies, we need ways to regulate ourselves. This is where the concepts of “Blue Mind” and biophilia meet design.
Ways to trigger the “Blue Mind” effect
In his book, Dr. Nichols provides some activities one can use to trigger the “Blue Mind” effect.
- Go swimming – Perhaps the first thing you think of when you brainstorm ways to connect to water, take a dip in a natural or manmade body of water! In addition to physically immersing yourself in water, you also stimulate endorphin and endocannabinoid release by taking part in an aerobic exercise. When these natural painkillers (endorphins and endocannabinoids) are released your stress and anxiety response subsides.
- Learn to surf – This one is for the adventurous types. If you’re looking for a new hobby, why not learn to surf? Many who are recovering from addiction pick up surfing because high-intensity sports satisfy the “rush” that they crave in a much more natural way.
- Go fishing – Unless you’re in the deep ocean, battling rough waters, fishing can be quite relaxing, providing just enough distraction from life’s stressors.
- Visit an aquarium – This option gives you the opportunity to enjoy underwater life without partaking in a strenuous activity such as scuba diving. Studies have shown that people who viewed aquarium tanks, especially those with a great deal of biodiversity, had substantial drops in blood pressure and heart rate.
- Take a bath – Here’s another obvious, and potentially even easier, way to immerse yourself in water. Immersing yourself in water helps to balance your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, allowing you to relax.
- Drink water – No, we take the comment about baths back. This one is probably the easiest on the list. The simple act of drinking water can help you achieve the “Blue Mind” effect. Sometimes, when we’re feeling a little “off,” the culprit is just dehydration. Dehydration can have many negative effects on the body including lowered alertness, decreased psychomotor and regulatory functions, and even increased anxiety. Go ahead, go grab a glass of water.
- Get a fountain – Lastly, we have the fountain, which provides both visual and auditory elements to help you achieve relaxation and rejuvenation. There are small fountains created for more personal spaces such as desks or side tables, but large, outdoor fountains achieve the meditative effect on a grander scale, allowing many to enjoy them all at once. As an added benefit, floating fountains and other oxygen saturation technologies can improve the health of the waterbody. These water features eliminate toxins, which improves water clarity among a host of other benefits.
Certainly, not all of these options are viable in controlled environments such as workplaces or healthcare facilities. However, they do illustrate the power of water as it pertains to our health and well-being.
The impact of a water feature
“Today, almost no pool goes in without a water feature. They want to see the water move; they want to hear it move, they want it to dance, to turn colors at night.”
-Lynn Sherr, Swim: Why We Love the Water
If there were a Venn diagram of biophilia and the “Blue Mind,” the “Blue Mind” circle would be completely contained within the biophilia circle. That is because proximity to water is one of the essential components of biophilic design.
Water features both give people something aesthetically pleasing to look at and elevate the value and perception of a property. Adding water creates a tranquil environment that promotes reduced stress along with improved concentration and memory, all while promoting sustainability. Surprisingly, water features actually lose less water to evaporation than a lawn or garden of the same size.⁵
Water is predictable, for the most part. Even though it is always changing, its overall appearance is steady. Nichols says, “In the motion of the water we see patterns that never exactly repeat themselves yet have a restful similarity to them.”¹ Because of this, our brain is able to relax. He goes on to say that despite water’s consistency, we keep searching for something that wasn’t there before — a change. When we do notice a disturbance of some sort, it comes as a pleasant surprise that releases dopamine. This dichotomy allows us to experience both “soothing familiarity and stimulating novelty” at the same time.
Thinking about adding a water feature to your property? Our sister company can help. In addition to traditional aeration solutions like floating fountains and submersed aerators, SOLitude Lake Management designs, constructs, and maintains architectural fountains and custom water features. SOLitude experts will help you design a solution that fits your needs and is customized for your space. The knowledgeable team has an eye for aesthetics and can recommend styles that align well with your property type, budget, and long-term goals.
Biophilia and the “Blue Mind”
It is not just office workers that benefit from exposure to nature. Ongoing research has shown that patients who had some sort of nature connection, be it a large window, a plant in their room, or even just a painting or a picture of a natural scene, saw a reduction in pain and in recovery times. Roger S. Ulrich, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University conducted one such study. In his study, he found that heart surgery patients experienced less anxiety and need for pain medication after looking at pictures of trees and water.⁶
No matter where you spend your time, we could all use a little more exposure to nature. Your customers, tenants, guests, employees, and operations writ large only stand to benefit from bringing the natural world a little closer.
To discover the power of biophilic design in your space, call and talk with one of our experts today. And for your lake and pond management needs, our sister company SOLitude Lake Management is here to help as well. Ambius and SOLitude will be your partners in finding sustainable solutions to enhance your space and protect your aquatic ecosystems.
¹Nichols, W. J., & Cousteau, C. (2015). Blue mind: 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. Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company.
²Elliot AJ. Color and psychological functioning: A review of theoretical and empirical work. Front Psychol. 2015;6. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00368
³American Psychological Association. (2020, April). Nurtured by nature. Monitor on Psychology, 51(3). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/nurtured-nature
⁴Kurt, S., & Osueke, K. K. (2014). The Effects of Color on the Moods of College Students. SAGE Open. https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244014525423
⁵Roy, C. (2021, July 20). The magic of water features in a post-COVID world. Buildings. https://www.buildings.com/articles/43005/water-features-post-covid ⁶Clay, R. A. (2001, April). Green is good for you. Monitor on Psychology, 32(4). https://www.apa.org/monitor/apr01/greengood