Wired well-being

Wired well-being

Blue mind charts our link with water, but what about Twitter streams and net surfing?

Riding the digital wave. Dan_H, CC BY-NC

“Water makes you happier, more connected and better at what you do,” says Wallace J Nichols, a marine biologist and wild water advocate based at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. On 11-12 June 2014 he is sharing this philosophy with a small invited audience at the 4th Blue Mind Summit, held this year at the wild coastal location of Bedruthan Steps in Cornwall.

Green is the colour usually associated with environmental well-being. Trees, parks, and verdant landscapes of all kinds, are advocated by urban planners seeking to improve public health. But, until recently, less attention has been paid to “blue” areas such as beaches, lakes, rivers and the ocean. But study of the impact of blue space on human health and well-being is growing, and it lies behind Nichols’ BLUEMIND research project. The concept of Blue Mind, Nichols says, is about the “human-ocean connection”, an emotional bond whose roots may in the future be charted by neuroscientists.

Researchers of all hues are interested in blue. Wjklos, CC BY

This kind of research is attracting marine biologists, conservationists, artists, urban planners – indeed, anyone interested in the relationship between humanity and our watery planet. One of the UK research groups hosting the Cornwall event, the interdisciplinary Blue Gym project at the University of Exeter Medical School, has been investigating the psychological and physical health benefits of exposure to natural water environments. They have found, for example, that the stress levels of people living in coastal communities may be lower than normal simply because they spend more of their leisure time near, or even in, the sea.

Some have looked for physical explanations, for example there has been research into the role and abundance of negative ions – atoms with more than the usual number of electrons – in increasing serotonin levels and improving mood where air and water collide. But not all of us live near water, so how can we get a similar fix?

Although the real experience can never be matched, you might at least have access to some of the benefits of being near water by simply looking at it on your computer, tablet or phone. This impact of digital nature is something I’ve been exploring.

In his new book, Nichols also explains the benefits of simply looking at images of seas, lakes and rivers. For example, he describes an experiment at Plymouth University in 2010 where 40 adults were asked to rate pictures of different natural and urban environments. The researchers found that any picture containing water triggered higher ratings for positive mood, preference and perceived restorativeness, than those images with no water, no matter whether they were shown in a natural landscape or an urban setting. Other experiments have supported these findings.

Dude, it’s a metaphor. Duncan Rawlinson, CC BY-NC
There seems little doubt that connotations of water, whether visual, aural or even text-based, can make us feel better. The relationship between computers and the blue mind first appeared in 1992 when net pioneer Jean Armour Polly was commissioned to write an article introducing the internet to her fellow librarians. The net was then already more than 20 years old, but few people had heard of it and she was unsure how to describe her online experiences. “I needed something that would evoke a sense of randomness, chaos, and even danger. I wanted something fishy, net-like, nautical,” she wrote later.

As Polly cast around for the right metaphor, her eye fell on the mousepad beneath her hand. Designed by Steve Cisler at the Apple Library User’s Group in Cupertino, California, it featured a picture of a surfer. For Polly, a land-locked librarian in Syracuse, New York, with no connections to surf culture and not even a keen swimmer, it made perfect sense. “Eureka”, she said, “I had my metaphor.”

The resulting article, “Surfing the Internet”, marked the first published use of the term and appeared in the Wilson Library Bulletin in June 1992.

There has since been competition for who really did say it first, including from Mark McCahill, an American programmer, who also apparently used the phrase that very same year, and from Tom Mandel, a San Franciscan futurist and a surfer himself.

Landlocked but still surfing. Jared, CC BY

No matter who started it, the notion of surfing the internet has been picked up worldwide by people who have never mounted a board, perhaps never even seen a beach, yet their imaginations are fired by the idea of carefree riding in a sea of information.

It is not the only example of watery metaphor to be found in cyberspace. We swim in our Twitter streams, dive into torrent files, float on data clouds. Waterfalls, babbling brooks, and the ubiquitous ocean views can be found on many desktops and home screens. Try, for example, installing Beach Live Wallpaper on your mobile. “This wallpaper brings the sunny beach to you,” says the blurb. “The waves in summer time break on the shore right on your phone.” And relax. You have brought the blue mind into your digital life.