Our Brains, Near Water

December 16, 2015

Scientists have offered wide-ranging ideas about why being near the ocean brings us such calm. They include the negative ions found in ocean waves, which are believed to boost the mood chemical serotonin, and our evolutionary propensity to find safety in flat, unforested environments where predators can’t hide. Studies have linked swimming and other aquatic exercises to improved mood and sharper brain function. There’s also anecdotal evidence that kayaking, surfing, and fishing are therapeutic for substance abusers, people with physical disabilities, and veterans coping with brain injuries and emotional trauma.

The hard research mostly nips around the edges. In his book, J Nichols cites papers like a 2010 study that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine how different pictures activate the brain. In the study, nature scenes triggered activity in regions associated with empathy. Urban scenes lit up the amygdala, which detects dangers. Other research has linked the color blue with security and relaxation, and shown that ocean sounds decrease body levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

At Duke, Scott Huettel has approached the question by studying how our brains place value on certain visual images, including landscapes like oceans. He measures this by having subjects give up a few pennies of their compensation in exchange for lingering over the pictures they find most attractive. He then correlates those results with brain function, using fMRI to look at changes in blood oxygenation, an indirect measure of neuronal activity.

What he’s found is that the brain calculates the value of experiences like beach vacations in much the same way it calculates the value of material goods. “Your experience seems to be encoded in the brain not just as some abstract aesthetic—‘ this is pretty’—but actually how much it’s worth to you,” he says. Based on the literature, Huettel adds, it seems to be worth more than people realize. “You ask them how happy a purchase is going to make them feel, they overestimate their later happiness for buying a new iPhone, or a new car, or a new pair of shoes. And they underestimate the satisfaction they’ll get from having taken a vacation, or a trip, or an outing with friends.”

Huettel is quick to note that this is incomplete science. “The enormous challenge is that we require people to be inside an MRI scanner,” he says. “This limits the depth of the sensory experience people can have. So we know a fair amount about visual experiences. We can find out—although my lab doesn’t study it—a little bit about auditory experiences. But the other senses are quite difficult to engage while they’re in the MRI scanner. There’s no technique that’s close to being able to identify what’s going on while someone is engaging the full sensory experience, say, of walking along the beach. That’s many years in the future.”

Still, Huettel’s research caught the attention of Nichols, who reached out to the brain scientist before the 2012 summit (the only one he has attended). “This is something near and dear to J’s heart, because he sees a challenge to conservation as increasing awareness about the underappreciated value of the oceans as a common resource,” Huettel says. “My sense is that he’s right about this big puzzle: We know that people have great difficulty thinking accurately about public goods. We tend to undervalue them in many ways, and we don’t take enough personal actions to support them.”

Huettel agrees that more research by neuroscientists could shift the conversation about environmental policy. “Once you start thinking about things in terms of brain changes,” he says, “something that might seem ineffable becomes more real.” (Read more about J Nichols' "blue" effort.)