A team of researchers at the University of Virginia recently studied college students who were left alone in a room that was empty, except for a single button. When each student arrived, the consequence of pushing the button was demonstrated—a painful shock. Next, the student was asked if he or she would pay not to be shocked again—typically, the student opted to pay. Then the student was left alone in the room to “just think” for fifteen minutes.
What happened next was remarkable:
A quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men chose to repeatedly push the button rather than sit and let their minds wander.
Those who shocked themselves did so an average of seven times.
One man (who was considered an outlier, so his data was left out of the study) shocked himself 190 times.
Our ability to let our minds wander has been linked to greater working memory and increased creativity. But in a world where one hundred different kinds of distractions arrive at our senses tens of thousands of times a day, being alone with our thoughts may feel strange. As the Virginia study shows, some people will essentially torture themselves to avoid it.
What can we expect from a world populated and led by individuals incapable of solitude? What might be lost? How will our minds and societies evolve as privacy and solitary time evaporate? At a time when new ideas and innovation are urgently needed, what can we do to protect, maintain, and restore the precious and increasingly rare commodity called “alone”?
I believe that water—wild waters in particular—holds an answer. Time walking ocean shores and beaches, floating channels, drifting, bobbing, sinking, sailing, surfing, or skimming. Even sitting at the water’s edge—be it a pond, lake, river, bay, estuary, or ocean—provides enough soft fascination to stave off boredom and allow the desire to “check in.” Wild water is dynamic, changing, and unpredictable enough to hold our attention, yet sufficiently simple, rhythmic, and monotonous to allow for creative mind wandering.
What I call the “blue” state of mind is the antidote to our overstimulated, distracted, and activated “red” minds. Blue mind can be defined as a mildly meditative state characterized by calmness, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment. It is most inspired by water and elements associated with water, from the color blue to the words we use to describe the sensations associated with immersion in a mountain stream. Blue mind takes advantage of neurological connections formed over millennia, many such brain patterns and preferences being discovered only now, thanks to innovative scientists and cutting-edge technology.
Blue mind is also a great way to introduce solitude to young people. A walk on the beach, a surf session, or a river float are well-disguised therapies for a beleaguered red mind. It’s also one of the best portals into the contemplative arts: Water meditates us once a modicum of attention is directed its way.
When I met my partner, Dana, I explained what poet Rainer Maria Rilke had to say about solitude, that “…a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude… ”
Time spent near, in, on, and under water here on California’s Slow Coast has made us happier, healthier, more creative and connected, and better at what we do. Included in that “what we do” is raising two daughters who know how to shut down, find the water’s edge, and go deeper.
What you can do
Wallace J. Nichols, Ph.D., is a marine biologist, community organizer, dad, and the author of the New York Times best seller 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.