How Your Primal Connection to Water Runs Deeper Than Thirst

WaterThe guy who kayaks and sets up camp along the same river each year. The woman who gets through the first year after her husband’s death one nightly hot bath at a time. The girl who brings her thoughts to the ocean each evening before sunset. The boy who throws rocks in the lake every day. The older couple who fall asleep to the sound of the waves. When was the last time you spent a period of time next to (or in) water? Maybe it was a week, or maybe it was ten minutes. Chances are, no matter how little time it was, it changed you somehow. It shifted your mood. It relaxed your thoughts. It softened the edges of your day, and you left at least somewhat revived.

Many of us grew up or now live close to a body of water. Still more of us choose to vacation by water – spend a week at the beach, stay in a cabin by the lake, camp by the river, etc. (By extension, how many of you wish you did or are planning to?) Even if we live in the middle of a major city, think of how people congregate around a city fountain to eat their lunch or simply sit and watch the people go by? The fact is, people invariably congregate around water (kind of like the kitchen at a house party). We’re drawn to water like our animal brethren despite the fact we have faucets and water bottles at our ready disposal.

Prehistoric human communities and, later, civilizations developed around water. Naturally, it was a matter of survival then. Human can survive on average about three days without water (despite those headline-grabbing outliers who manage a week or more). Lakes, rivers and oceans offered meals as well as hydration. These days we can live hundreds of miles from substantial water sources but be fully supplied through modern modes of transport. Yet, as with so much of our physical and cognitive blueprints, the psychological draw (and reward) operates beyond the context of necessity. To this day, surveys continually show people substantially prefer landscapes (whether urban or rural) with visible water to those without water. (PDF)

Water is at once perhaps the most utilitarian substance. Yet, it is also an aesthetic influence and even spiritual symbol that reaches deep into our innate associations. Culturally speaking, water embodies varied and significant archetypal meanings. Religious ceremonies and rituals using water abound across the globe around themes of cleansing, immersion, initiation and transformation.

It is also a sensual force that acts on us both physically and emotionally. Aquatic therapy (e.g. water play, exercise and flotation) is used for individuals with autism and other neurological conditions or trauma for proprioceptive and tactile input. Emotionally speaking, anyone who’s luxuriated in a hot bath after a stressful week or used a shower to “wash the day away,” can understand something of its healing element. Whether we approach it as aesthetic power, spiritual presence or therapeutic remedy, water holds a deeply ingrained if not sacred place in our evolutionary psyche.

Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist and author of 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 picks up this very idea and describes in full detail the common human experience of water exposure (or immersion) using everything from historical poetry to clinical study results to his own scientific experimentation.

He describes his experience, for example on a North Carolina shore while a 68-channel full-spectrum mobile EEG unit is measuring his subconscious reactions to the water with data collections 256 times per second. As he observes and jumps in to swim, would any of us be surprised to hear the EEG reflected both “fear” and “exhilaration”?

Bodies of water, particularly large bodies like the ocean can dwarf us, leaving us with a euphoric sensation of skimming the edge of risk or with a quiet, contemplative release in the shadow of a force so much greater and more timeless than ourselves.

Yet, the connection and rewards are tangible and becoming clearer with unfolding research. Nichols assembles an impressive array of studies supporting the role of not simply “green” (general nature) space but specifically “blue” space (body of water) exposure in encouraging greater stress relief, potent trauma therapy, added physical activity, and better community cohesion. Studies have found a moderate gain in general well-being and (likely related) an increase in exercise in those living on or near coastal areas as opposed to those who live inland. What’s more, those who exercise in the presence of water demonstrate greater self-esteem and better mood than those who exercise in other natural settings.

Researchers have analyzed the data of hundreds of studies related to water exposure and affirm the mental and physical health benefits (e.g. related to cardiovascular health, cancer, obesity, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction recovery, depression, and anxiety) that are difficult to always scientifically measure but simple to appreciate whether our experience is “recreational” or “contemplative,” “harvest” (e.g. fishing) or aesthetic. (PDFHowever we act on water, it’s clear it acts on us.

Nichols takes it a step further, coining the term “blue mind” as the calm, “mildly meditative state” and peaceful, connected sense of satisfaction we experience in a body of water’s presence. He considers this blue state of mind as a critical antidote to modern stress soak we experience in this disconnected age. At issue, he claims, is our own mental well-being. Our “emotional interaction with the most prevalent substance on the planet,” as Nichols puts it, has implications for individual as well as societal health, not to mention environmental sustainability. Our evolutionary predispositions and preferences are far from archaic shadows but perhaps saving graces.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. What are your favorite “blue” places and memories? What could time near water do for you today. Contemplate that – and have a great end to your week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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50 thoughts on “How Your Primal Connection to Water Runs Deeper Than Thirst”

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  1. I love being near the water but unfortunately life doesn’t allow much of it nowadays. I’m sure it would help my stress level.

  2. My once a week hot spring plunge is something I have always called a mini-vacation.

  3. Does this apply only to natural bodies of water? What about pools?

    1. I was going to say, but I don’t want to double up and work has been put in to find the link above. It is about how we are descended from semi-aquatic beings. Noone knows exactly what went on before records began, but is is an interesting watch that stimulates the mind about the possibilities of why we are like we are.

  4. I live between the Cascade mountains and the ocean and would have a hard time leaving either. I’ve done some traveling and have always been glad to get home to where it’s green. Living near the ocean it is as much about the sound and smell as well as the sight of green ocean water(It’s not blue here). I live a quarter mile from the Nooksack River and again it is about smell and sound as well as sight. It is almost hypnotic watching the river flow. I have always enjoyed traveling by the state ferry although I do remember a field trip through the Straights of Juan de Fuca where the waves were rolling pretty good and the professor wasn’t taking it well. It didn’t bother me at all.
    My older daughter did Army basic training in South Carolina and said the sky was too big and the land was too flat. She said she spent the first month feeling disoriented every time she went outside. My daughter also said the biggest thing she missed while she was in the Army was the grey overcast days that we get in Washington about half the time.

  5. This one, I’ve known for years. That’s why I live in San Francisco and make a point of going to see the ocean as often as I can.

  6. I wish I lived near an ocean. I can only hope that in the future, I will.

  7. It’s probably a personal thing. I’ve never been particularly attracted to oceans or other large bodies of water, possibly because I grew up in the mountains. For me, the mountains are far more fascinating.

  8. Maybe I’m weird, but I actually enjoy the vastness of the great plains.There are places just a couple hours from my home where you can see from horizon to horizon with very few human marks on the land. No fences, no powerlines… nothing but grassland, rolling hills, and antelope. Watching a storm roll in from across the prairie is a sight everyone should get to see once.
    I’ve never gotten the same enjoyment from mountains or bodies of water.

    1. We ended up living in the high plains of NM for about 8 years, someplace I never thought I would like to live. There really is something enchanting about the vastness and one gets really aware of the sky. Georgia O’Keeffe loved it as well when she lived in West Texas. Downside for me was the wind. I appreciate the wind but just don’t like it when it blows much of the time.

      I’m sure coming across a body of water out there would have been thrilling as well.

  9. Hubby and I are currently doing a six month trial living in our beachfront condo in Puerto Penasco, Sonora, Mexico, a little-known fishing village turned resort town at the northeastern edge of the Sea of Cortez. Real estate prices are very much in reach for middle-class Americans here and cost of living is great for retirees.

    If we can figure out a healthy way of eating down here, we’ll likely make a permanent move. The peace of mind brought by the sound of the sea, daily barefoot beach walks at low tide, and frequent soaks in the sea makes small sacrifices in other areas very much worthwhile.

    1. “Little known fishing village…” I think you have your answer if you can eat healthy! Sounds like a dream!

  10. Water is underrated. Doing something with it could be part of a simple gratitude exercise. My word of caution is that plunging into water or showers, for example, is a stimulant. You can only stimulate yourself so much in certain ways for so long without some form of detriment. Depending on the amount of stress you are under (stress versus eustress) Unless you are super fit, resilient and made of stronger stuff than most (and you die young/in your prime).

  11. I live near a beach in Sydney, Australia and I love the energy. People are always running, walking, swimming and having fun. There’s lots of dogs playing and people chatting. They dress casual and move slow. Makes me feel like I’m always on holiday!

  12. Such a timely post for me. We visited friends this weekend who live near Lake Ontario. My hold body unwound in a way I can’t really articulate when I stepped near the short. It makes me more motivated to live near water again…I miss my southern California ocean!

  13. This is a very apt quote, posted this week by Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project:

    “The castle of Cair Paravel on its little hill towered up above them; before them were the sands, with rocks and little pools of salt water, and sea weed, and the smell of the sea, and long miles of bluish-green waves breaking forever and ever on the beach. And, oh, the cry of the sea gulls! Have you heard it? Can you remember?”

    — C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

  14. It is autumn in the Northeast and a favorite place to visit this time of year is a kettle pond formed by the retreating glaciers in a local park. There are a long set of stairs leading to the pond that is surrounded on 3 sides by steep wooded hills. The trees and bushes all turn incredible colors and reflect in the shimmering pond. About the only sound you hear are the bull frogs.

  15. According to Aquatic Ape theory our very distant ancestors spent several millenia on the sea shore, resulting in some genetic adaptation to life in the water. Some scientists scoff at the idea, maybe rightly so, but I find it a fascinating possibility.

  16. Apparently 50-75% of our body consists of water, so maybe that’s why it has such a positive effect on us…

  17. I’ve always been drawn to water, and the beach is where I feel total relaxation and freedom. Nothing like it, although I also love lakes, rivers, streams, pools – I’m not picky. Mountains and woods are great too, but there’s something about the element of water that beckons me.

    1. I feel the same pull! Also, I know two people who have had unexpected spiritual experiences in waves, a sort of altered perception – and one was in a pool wave machine!

      1. I have experienced this too! Two summers ago I spent a week on a Dutch North Sea island, and this one time I was floating and bouncing on the waves and suddenly it was like my perception shifted from inside my body to outside, as if I was looking down on myself, this tiny, tiny human floating in the vastness of the sea, so close to the shore yet completely isolated. It felt wonderful and seemed to last forever… I’ll never forget that.

  18. Rain is my favorite weather. Big fat drops that make a lot of noise, or when I’m out walking in it, make me have to take my glasses off so everything has fuzzy edges. I absolutely love getting drenched by rain.

  19. When I worked at the Park in Kentucky, the stream ran through it. I spent as much time down there as possible watching the Great Blue Herons fly by. It was awesome. Water=Life

  20. Love the water, just finished 3.3 kms in the hour (3 times a week) this has become my exercise as getting a bit arthritic at 64. But I almost always feel great after it can feel the benefit.

  21. I lived in Seattle for 17 years and love and miss the water. However, my favorite place on earth is Bryce Canyon and Zion national park in Southern UT. The red rock and amazing rock formations are truly a sight to behold. I feel most at home hiking around there.

  22. I live near a limestone bay in South Wales. It’s been a little stormy over the last few days and I’ve fallen asleep to the sound of the waves crashing ashore each night…truly lovely! I love the changing moods of the sea, from calm peacefulness to malevolent power…gives you a sense of how small you are! I lived away for a while and hated being away from the sea. It becomes part of who you are I think..

  23. For most of my young life, I’ve always lived within a mile or two of water. My college was on the banks of a SC river. My favorite blue moment was when I lived on Surf City, NC with the water breaking at my back steps…sometimes eroding the sand under them.

    I also enjoy floating in pools, although I’m reminded of how much more “buoyant” I am these days.

  24. Has anyone here read Dr. Masaru Emoto’s NYT’s Bestseller “The Hidden Messages In Water”? It should be essential reading for anyone who feels this incredible life affirming response when in and around water. Humans and the planet are essentially made of water, and molecules of water are scientifically proven to be effected by our thoughts. The research presented by Dr. Emoto is utterly astounding and irrefutable. It changed my outlook profoundly. I think this book can help us all understand just how important our thoughts are to our bodies/lives, and to the planet. Thanks for the great topic, Mark!

  25. I live on a hill overlooking a large lake in the west of Ireland. The view is hard to beat. In terms of stressbusting I know nothing better after a tough day/hour/week than sitting out on my deck and just looking out at the lake. It somehow manages to ease the burdens from my mind. i don’t know how it works but it’s the best natural anti stressor I know.

  26. I too love spending time near water, I really feel very relaxed and forget about everything.. just enjoy the sound of water. I’m planning a beach trip for next month.

  27. I grew up on the coast of Lake Michigan. Once I got my first car in High School, every evening I would drive a route along the coastline staring out at the vastness and the waves. It was just a cloud of calm, and quiet, and a little bit of understanding. It just felt safe and familiar.

  28. What happened to the theory that we are living in water from conception so we find it soothing safe and peaceful…like the womb.

    1. That reminds me of something Woody Allen said: “I have a strong urge to return to the womb… anybody’s”

  29. Mark, Your article really resonated with me, but I think what you were trying to say was: SALINATION CURES ALL: SWEAT, TEARS AND SALT WATER. The salt water immersion is my reward for the sweat and tears and I try to do it every day.

  30. Most of my injuries and illness of body and soul alike are mended with a silent hour of water, temperature of my choice. When I was CW and emo, rain was the only thing that made me happy.

  31. Always loved water, especially moving water. Cold streams used to be the best medicine for my gouty ankle. Fishing rod in hand is magical. Newest joy is kayak fishing for bass here in NH, shared with my ultra busy brother. Fall colors, cool water and sweet peace and quiet shared!

  32. My wife and I chose our home lot specifically because it backs up to a pond that is probably 100 yards long and maybe 40 yards wide at the widest point. We paid a premium for this lot and paid extra for a covered patio in the back. I love just sitting outside and even if I’m not actually looking at the pond, I’m comforted by it’s presence.

    Heck, right now we are on a long weekend vacation and I’m sitting in a cabin that’s hanging off the side of a bluff over a huge lake. I’m sitting at the table but the front door is open and the lake is visible right in front of me.

    Being around sources of water is as primal as anything I can think of.

  33. I love the idea of taking a dip in the open waters. I used to go swimming only at the pool. I’ve noticed a few changes the way my body functions. Keeping yourself healthy and active pays off.

  34. Our remarkable attraction to the sea is based on our evolution: human ancestors lived along coasts & rivers. This has been called the “aquatic ape theory” by Elaine Morgan, but is has nothing to do with apes or australopithecines, but only with humans (genus Homo) and a better term is e.g. “coastal dispersal model”. Homo erectus & their relatives during the Ice Ages did not run over open plains or savannas as still believed in popular writings, but simply followed the coasts, as far as Indonesia, the Cape & England, wading bipedally, diving & beach-combing for waterside & shallow aquatic foods, and from the coasts they later went up rivers, presumably at first seasonally, e.g. following the salmon or so. This is why humans still need iodine (shortage of iodine causes thyroid disorders, hypothyroidy, myxedema, cretinism etc.). Iodine is in the air at the coasts, but not in the mountains.
    The proceedings of the symposium on human waterside evolution “Human Evolution: Past, Present & Future” (London 8-10 May 2013, with David Attenborough & Don Johanson) are published in 18 papers in 2 special editions of Human Evolution: Part 1 end 2013 & Part 2 begin 2014, google e.g.
    “Rhys Evans Vaneechoutte”
    “econiche Homo”,

  35. “The sea is almost always a therapeutic presence. Its indifference to our fate calms the ego and places the self in a wider, consolingly indifferent context”. Alain de Botton

  36. Right away I am going away to do my breakfast, later
    than having my breakfast coming overr again to read
    more news.

  37. We installed a waterfall in the back yard and it soothes everyday. Calms the mind and body at the end of a workday. Even the wildlife gravitate towards it every day.

  38. True, I remember hearing somewhere that apparently 90% of people in australia live within 20 miles of the sea. (not sure if that is the exact distance, but was something along those lines)