Friday, January 15, 2016

Blue is better

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, water

People are so incredibly variable that no generalization holds absolutely. An old riddle points this up: What is the average number of legs? The answer: A little bit less than two. And if you think about it, that's not just because of amputations.

But one thing is pretty close to universal. We like water. Not just to drink, that's a life requirement. But we like to be near it, or in or on or under water. Thus the title of a refreshing (pun intended) book by Wallace J. Nichols, 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. And I do believe that's the longest subtitle in my experience.

The opening image in the most beloved Psalm, #23, is "He leads me beside the still waters; He restores my soul." I don't care what denomination you belong to, if you went to church as a child, you probably memorized Psalm 23. The placement of this Psalm between 22 and 24 indicates that God intended it to evoke the experience of Jesus between his crucifixion and his resurrection. If ever a soul needed a rest beside still waters, it was His, then and there! The green pasture and still water restoring the soul are an image of paradise.

Traditional "earth tones" are a bunch of browns. As this photo shows, those "earth tones" are really "desert tones". Only the Sahara at right center is any color besides blue, green or white. The browns that grade into red are the "dryest" colors of all.

Dr. Nichols, universally known as "J" to his friends, as Céline Costeau writes in her introduction, sets out to back up with science what we know from experience. Being by the water is nicer. And that "nicer" is worth a lot even in monetary terms. As he tells us in his chapter "The Water Premium", a tiny bungalow on the oceanfront in Del Mar, California was priced at more than $6 million in 2003 and had risen to about $9 million ten years later.

I just looked up Del Mar on It is strung out along the coast north of Torrey Pines near San Diego. None of the town is further than a mile from the ocean, and none of the houses is valued at less than a million or so. But the ones on that last block next to the Pacific Ocean are priced twice as high as the others, and quite a few are $10-20 million. Out of curiosity I looked further up the coast, to Seal Beach southwest of Los Angeles. It is not quite as pricey as Del Mar, with homes a "mere" half million or so inland, but along the beach, most range around $2 million. The premium is definitely in effect there also.

Darn few of us can afford to live in view of the ocean, or even a lake, stream or river. And, as Hurricane Sandy showed us, that view comes with certain risks. I live a block from a nice little creek. The few houses that are right along it do tend to cost more than those a street back, by 30% or so. But they also pay rather incredible premiums for flood insurance, if they have it at all. But where we live, a close walk from the creek, it is easy for my wife and me to take a walk with the gurgle of the stream to backdrop our conversation, and views of the creek where it loops nearer the path.

The book contains a great deal of science, but told very readably. The results of MRI and other kinds of mind and brain tests are discussed, but J's writing is not off-putting like so many "science writers". And he tells of other findings that don't require big, noisy machines: how a picture of a mountain brook in a room where students take a test improves their scores; how teaching an autistic kid to surf can radically improve his communication skills; or how muted surf sounds really do make it easier for an insomniac to sleep (well known to merchants of "white noise" and "ocean noise" machines).

I don't recall anything in the book about the theory that we evolved from water apes, that is, apes that got lots of their sustenance by fishing and shelling. The various books and articles that make this contention are a further indication just how we are tied to water, not just to slake our thirst, but to slake the thirst of our souls for peace and comfort.

Now that my father lives near San Diego, and my brother has a condo a block from the beach, when I visit them, I make sure to spend some time beachcombing. Whether I keep the shells I find or not; whether I take any pictures or just enjoy the stroll, it makes the cross-country trip even more worth it. It really does restore my soul.

The author closes by telling us of his Blue Marbles. Some years ago, thinking about this photo of Earthrise from Apollo 8, often called the "Blue Marble Image", he handed out clear, blue marbles to everyone who came to one of his speaking engagements. At the end, he asked them all to look at the marble, to look through it, and to think about all the pleasant things about being with water. Then he asked them to give the marble to someone later on, with a similar explanation. Since then, the marbles have traveled everywhere, and others have obtained blue marbles on their own, and hand them out.

As I said at the beginning, people are incredibly variable. Some hate to swim, whether they can or not, and many refuse to learn. Some remain affected by some early trauma and cannot abide the sight of open water. I've known (and smelled) one or two folks who won't bathe or shower, and at best will just do a sponge bath every week or two. Aside from such rare cases, humans like water. Water we can walk beside, swim in, boat on, or just a good soak or shower to start or end the day. We didn't need science to tell us that. But it's interesting just how consistent the science findings are. Guess what my current screen saver slide show is? The fifty best waterfall pictures I could find.

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