• Meghan McCarthy

Seas the Day: How the Beach Changes Your Brain

“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever”  ~Jacques Yves Cousteau


Photo by Aleksandra Boguslawska on Unsplash

Psychology of the Beach Buzz


Beach goers report significant health benefits after a day by the ocean. They feel happier, restored, and even more at home¹. Research is finding that individuals feel personal symbolism toward beaches. The landscape promotes rootedness and security. Some scientists are now deeming these effects a ‘blue state of mind.’ This encompasses the calm, meditative state instilled when by the ocean or other bodies of water. 


Urbanization and technology promote the mere opposite. Over 90% of young adults are checking their phones incessantly². This creates a ‘red mind’ mentality, which is synonymous to anxiety and stress. 


If you relate to this red minded description, the beach can help you change.


The beach is a therapeutic landscape. These areas promote  four criteria³

  • Place attachment: emotional connection to a specific location

  • Place identity:  a setting that helps define values and morals

  • Place dependence: location is necessary for wellness and goals

  • Social bonding: setting supports social interaction and relationships 


Even the color blue has psychological impact. Color psychology suggests that it promotes creativity, focus, and calm. 


Everyone can testify to loving the beach. It’s why over 52% of Americans reported the beach as their favorite vacation destination in 2017. From a neuroscience perspective, all psychological benefits are based on physiologic changes in your body. Much is still unknown about how the beach changes your brain. But, researchers do agree that the beach changes your brain. Below are factors scientists have identified thus far. 


Beach Air and Water-Generated Negative Ions


The beautiful sound of crashing waves changes the molecular structure of ocean air. As oceanic water breaks into small droplets, electrons rearrange to form water-generated negative ions (WNIs). 


If you’re not a science junky, don’t worry. Electrons are tiny subatomic particles within matter. 


Photo by Joel Mott on Unsplash

As electrons move, they combine with oxygen to form negative-ion clusters: O(HO)


Chemistry aside, this means that the infamous ‘salty air,’ of beaches is unique.


Scientists now believe that WNIs are an explanation for why the beach makes people healthier and happier. 


In a recent study with mice, researchers found exposure to WNI prolonged survival. They found that the negative ions activated natural killer cells. These have cytotoxic activity and prevent tumors. 



They also found the mice exposed to WNI had a 65% decrease in cancer and tumor growth. 


But, the benefits of negative ions don’t end here. A meta-analysis studied WNI exposure in psychiatric patients with depression. They found that WNI exposure decreased or cured over 50% of symptoms. Negative ion therapy has also been used to treat seasonal affective disorder and activate the parasympathetic nervous system


It’s important to note that more evidence is needed to support WNI improving mood and happiness.

Being Barefoot on the Beach: A Form of “Earthing”


While scorching at times, there’s nothing like being barefoot on the beach. This simple practice is one form of ‘earthing.’


Earthing is the action of connecting to the earth by barefoot contact. Everyone at the beach is 'earthing,' even if they don't know it.



Photo by Ramesh Iyer on Unsplash

When you walk barefooted, the earth transfers electrons. As a result, your body’s electrical potential changes to match that of the earth you’re standing on. This new electric potential changes the body’s physiology. Biochemical examples include changed activity in glucose metabolism, electrolyte homeostasis, and calcium-phosphate channels¹⁰


One study found that almost half of subjects experienced an instant change in their brain activity when walking barefoot¹¹


By “earthing,” the body has lowered neural activity and blood pressure. Specifics include decreased blood volume pulse and EEG activity in the left hemisphere. Some studies suggest earthing may also diminish pain by reducing inflammation. 


The takeaway? Walking barefoot on the beach is one form of earthing, and it has a neuromodulative role in the brain and body. These physiological changes may be why beach-goers feel more relaxed and often meditative.



The Relaxation of Crashing Waves


Most scientists agree that ocean sounds promote relaxation. But, little research specifies how. One way to understand the effect of oceanic sounds is to study its use as a therapy.


Tinnitus is a condition when an individual perceives sounds that aren't there11. The phrase, "hearing things," sums it up. Tinnitus is often a result of stress, anxiety, mood disorders, and PTSD.


Researchers believe that besides auditory areas, dysfunction in the limbic system causes tinnitus. This area of the brain handles emotional response to an environment. Studies have shown that tinnitus hyperactivates the amygdala and  hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPA). HPA is responsible for the body’s stress response. 


Researchers tried treating tinnitus patients with sound therapy. They found that nature sounds decreased blood pressure, and activated the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)¹². The PNS activates when the body is relaxed. Termed as a time of ‘rest and digest,’ the PNS builds up energy for the body to use later. 


PNS activation may be one explanation for why the beach puts the brain in a meditative state. 


Another study had participants listen to both natural and artificial environment sounds¹³. They used MRIs to measure brain activity and heart rate for autonomic nervous system activity. The team found that natural sounds decreased heart rate, cortisol levels (a biomarker for stress) and neural activity. 


Even more interesting, they found that brain connectivity was ‘outwardly directed.’ This means that nature sounds reduce stress and anxiety by activating the PNS. They found that even images of the beach activate the brain’s default mode network¹⁴. This area of the brain activates during decreased task performance and rest. 


Photo by Michael Baldovinos on Unsplash

While these studies weren’t done directly at the beach, they support why oceanic sounds are relaxing. The findings suggest that sounds like the crashing of waves make beach goers feel calm and serene.



Life is better at the Beach


Up to 60% of the human body is water¹⁵


It’s not surprising, then, that the brain loves being by the ocean. Whether you physically travel to the beach, or “mentally travel” by looking at photos, your brain will respond. With the final weeks of summer upon us, the beach us calling… and your brain wants to go. 


Endnotes:

  1. Bell, S. L., Phoenix, C., Lovell, R., & Wheeler, B. W. (2015). Seeking everyday wellbeing: The coast as a therapeutic landscape. Social science & medicine (1982), 142, 56–67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.08.011

  2. Livni, E. (2018, August 08). Blue Mind science proves the health benefits of being by water. Retrieved August 03, 2020, from https://qz.com/1347904/blue-mind-science-proves-the-health-benefits-of-being-by-water/

  3. Ibid 

  4. Kunst, P., & 3, S. (2019, September 03). Favorite types of vacation U.S. adults 2017. Retrieved August 03, 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/667802/leading-vacation-types-us-adults/

  5. Yamada, R., Yanoma, S., Akaike, M., Tsuburaya, A., Sugimasa, Y., Takemiya, S., Motohashi, H., Rino, Y., Takanashi, Y., & Imada, T. (2006). Water-generated negative air ions activate NK cell and inhibit carcinogenesis in mice. Cancer letters, 239(2), 190–197. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.canlet.2005.08.002

  6. Ibid 

  7. Perez, V., Alexander, D. D., & Bailey, W. H. (2013). Air ions and mood outcomes: a review and meta-analysis. BMC psychiatry, 13, 29. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-244X-13-29

  8. Flax, M. (2020, April 09). Science shows how a trip to the beach changes your brain. Retrieved August 03, 2020, from https://www.sacap.edu.za/blog/applied-psychology/beach-benefits/

  9. Sokal, P., & Sokal, K. (2011). The neuromodulative role of earthing. Medical hypotheses, 77(5), 824–826. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2011.07.046

  10. Ibid 

  11. Aydin, N., & Searchfield, G. D. (2019). Changes in tinnitus and physiological biomarkers of stress in response to short-term broadband noise and sounds of nature. Complementary therapies in medicine, 46, 62–68. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2019.07.018

  12. Tindle J, Tadi P. Neuroanatomy, Parasympathetic Nervous System. [Updated 2020 Jan 11]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK553141/

  13. It’s true…

  14. Ibid 

  15. The Water in You: Water and the Human Body. (n.d.). Retrieved August 03, 2020, from https://www.usgs.gov/special-topic/water-science-school/science/water-you-water-and-human-body?qt-science_center_objects=0

  16. Jewell, T. (2019, September 11). Do Negative Ions Affect People? If So, How? Retrieved August 03, 2020, from https://www.healthline.com/health/negative-ions

  17. Ashbullby, K. J., Pahl, S., Webley, P., & White, M. P. (2013). The beach as a setting for families' health promotion: a qualitative study with parents and children living in coastal regions in Southwest England. Health & place, 23, 138–147. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2013.06.005

  18. Gould van Praag, C., Garfinkel, S., Sparasci, O. et al. Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds. Sci Rep 7, 45273 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep45273