How the Sound of the Ocean Affects Our Brains

Humans have always revered water, from life-giving liquid, to Roman Baths, soothing showers or baths, a trip to the beach or the sound of the ocean. This article will help you find out the neurological benefits of being by the water or listening to the sound of it.

Why are we so Drawn to Water?

According to marine biologist, Wallace J. Nichols humans have a near-universal attraction to the colour blue and aquatic hues. Market research has found that people tend to associate it with calmness, openness, depth and wisdom.  Nichols believes humans have ‘a mildly meditative state characterised by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment’ — that’s triggered when we’re in or near water.[i]

Whether we are getting physical release and enjoyment from exercising on or near the water or relaxing our bodies and minds with warm soothing baths or refreshing showers, water creates neurological reactions in our brains and can aid in achieving a sense of clarity, well being and pleasure.

How does the Sound of Water Affect our Brains?

Listening to the sound of water can be looked at from different perspectives.  Regardless of whether you are listening to the sound of waves crashing on to the beach or against the rocks, a gentle lapping of the tide on the shore, water trickling over pebbles or a waterfall tumbling down, the volume is not important; it is the type of sound that activates our brains.

According to Orfeu Buxton, Associate Professor of Biobehavioural Health at Pennsylvania State University, the important factor is how the brain interprets the noises we hear as to whether they are classed as a threat or non-threat.  With certain rhythmical sounds, we can tune them out or just allow them to be in the background without creating a fear response unlike hearing a scream of an alarm clock suddenly going off.  The sound of water can vary considerably in volume as waves crash and then recede but regardless of volume, it is interpreted by the brain as a non-threat[ii] and that is why the sound of the ocean can help to calm people. Research has shown that the sound of the ocean can affect the brainwave pattern in humans, creating a calming and soothing effect.

Nichols believes that the sound of water is a simpler sound than the many sounds we are constantly bombarded with[iii].  We are often surrounded by constant noises such as people’s voices, the radio, television or traffic.  Therefore it allows to stop working so hard processing all the audio information and so the brain can have some downtime, it can slow down, possibly move into a deeper brainwave state, which creates a feeling of calmness, peacefulness and tranquillity.  It can also bring about clarity and ability to focus.  Watching the water or listening to it can bring about a mild meditative state; our brains are interested but not overloaded. Being in a mindful state — in which the brain is relaxed but focused — benefits the mind and body on a number of different levels. A growing accumulation of research has found many health benefits associated with mindfulness, including lower stress levels[iv], relief from mild anxiety, pain and depression, improved mental clarity and focus, and better sleep quality[v].

Exercise and Water

For those who enjoy exercising, exercising by the water can have added benefits, as the brain and mind quieten. Walking around a lake or along the beach can give you time to reflect, to contemplate or to find clarity for a solution to a problem.  It can allow thoughts and ideas to come up from the subconscious which we normally block in our hectic day to day lives; it gives us space and freedom to think. We can touch base with nature, allow its natural rhythms to soothe our bodies and minds, enjoy the sound of wildlife, escape from the pressures of our world.  We can enjoy the freedom of jogging in the open air and not on a treadmill and doing yoga at the side of a lake, can add to the experience of meditative states and breathing in fresh air.

If you enjoy exercising on or in water, you can feel the thrill, the freedom, the openness around you, being part of nature. Whether it’s challenging or relaxing, exercising on or in water can create fun and excitement and boost that feeling of happiness and living life or being able to escape and switch off.

Exercising by the water regularly is not realistic for many of us so why not listen to a soundtrack of the ocean the next time you go to the gym or take some exercise, not only will you be benefitting from the physical and neurological benefits of exercise but also the added benefits of listening to the sound of water.

Bringing the water to us

Audio recordings of the sounds of the ocean or babbling brooks are readily available to buy, so why not have one on your phone or iPod and soothe the journey to work, your commute or to calm the nerves before doing presentations or entering into pressured situations.


[i] Source: Wallace J. Nichols. 2014. 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 1st Edition
[ii] https://www.livescience.com/53403-why-sound-of-water-helps-you-sleep.html
[iii] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2016/02/25/mental-benefits-water_n_5791024.html
[iv] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/31/mindfulness-meditation-cortisol-stress-levels_n_2965197.html
[v] http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/mindfulness-meditation-may-ease-anxiety-mental-stress-201401086967

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