How does the beach affect your brain?

Why does sitting by a beach make us relaxed, learn how a study helps us understand this part of human psychology.

It's holiday time again: packing bags, finding passports checking flights, etc, etc. Even without the financial outlay it's a lot of work to do to get yourself to a beach. We're almost all convinced that a trip or holiday to the beach makes us feel calmer and reduces our stress levels.

It's a relatively recent concept to go to the beach for relaxation. One of the first in the UK was Scarborough, which took off in the mid 18th century. At that time things were a little more conservative. People were getting into 'bathing machines' to ferry them to the sea lest a brief glimpse of ankle send the male populous wild.

Since then the beach holiday at home and abroad has become part of many cultures life. It is a good example of how the environment we perceive can have a major impact on our emotions.

A team at Sheffield University, UK led by Dr Mike Hunter investigated this in a fairly cunning way. They showed people images of either a beach or a motorway / freeway. The clever bit is they were able to create a sound which fitted with both. The sound could be interpreted as traffic noise or wave noise, but was in fact the same sound.

They then put people in an MRI scanner and using functional imaging (scans which look at which areas of the brain are working rather than the structure).

What they found was that the brain handled the same sound differently depending on which image people were looking at. So when the tranquil scene was showing the brain became 'more connected' to areas that are involved in our subjective mood state: 'how we feel'.

 Russ having his auditory cortex modulated by a tranquil scene!

Russ having his auditory cortex modulated by a tranquil scene!

This may well be a culturally learned process so we associate a beach with holidays and calm rather than some deep neurological need in humans to sit by the beach in Florida but still its nice to know there's some science behind your holiday. 

Andres FonsecaComment