The Psychology of the Sea
As an Ocean Photographer, the psychology of the sea has always fascinated me.
When I’m diving, my aim is to capture ocean art that reflects the unique experience of being under the waves. To capture images that remind us of the emotions the sea can inspire in us. But what are these emotions, and where do they come from?
It’s interesting, the people I meet and discuss my work with always say the same things. That they find ocean imagery uplifts them and calms them. That’s why my prints seem to so often find themselves becoming inspirational artwork for home walls or a modern office space. It really is ‘art for the soul’.
I always agree. Being in the sea has always uplifted and energised me; it’s helped me find peace, calm and insight in myself and the underwater world around me. It’s the ultimate form of meditation for me.
But what I’ve really become interested in is what science has to say about why we all love the sea. What does the underwater experience actually do to our brains? And what can the ocean symbolise for us on a psychological level?
The Symbolism Of The Sea
Understanding the psychology of the sea means first understanding the underlying symbols it represents for our brains. Beginning with what might be our earliest ancestral memories of the ocean.
Considering that many believe we evolved from sea creatures to live on land, that means the ocean could be seen as our first real home.
And in a way, water has always been our friend. In my studies, I discovered that evolutionary psychologists believe that humans are naturally drawn to oceans - both in art and in day-to-day life - because water meant survival for early humans. As well as quenching our thirst, water was also a source of food. Both through the fish it held and the mammals it attracted.
Moving water especially was a symbol of safety, whilst stagnant water quickly became associated with dirt, disease and a lack of life.
So what can the sea symbolise?
Well in essence it represents safety. Security. A place to rest, recuperate and re-energise.
These very basic, instinctual urges to be near or close to moving water form the basis of a positive association with the ocean that we can see has continued to the modern world.
On a very basic level, the colour blue is considered universally positive. According to psychologist Dr Richard Shuster, ‘the colour blue has been found by an overwhelming amount of people to be associated with feelings of calm and peace.’ He also notes that just looking at the ocean affects our brain waves, it ‘puts us into a mild meditative state.’
Other research has found the colour blue enhances performance on cognitive tasks & boosts creativity. Making ocean art a popular choice for work environments and the creative office space.
Outside of the water, all five senses are engaged in a gentle and soothing way. In a world of overwhelm and overstimulation, the sea offers a perfect place for meditative quiet and contemplation.
‘The air on your skin, the warmth of the sun, the coolness of the water ... these are all incredibly rich sensory experiences that can wake you up to the full actuality of the body’s experience, which is what meditation is all about…’
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts.
But for me, underwater is where the real magic happens. The focused breath, the majestic movements of the wildlife, the methodical sway of the waves above - there’s nothing like it.
While underwater, I experience a vacuum. Only the slow murmuring of the currents and tides can reach me. Close encounters with beautiful natural habitats, and the animals that inhabit them, puts the world above on pause for me.
In this way, I think diving can create a safe space to not only escape the stress and bustle of daily life but to shed them. The water washes away our worries, letting them float away easily from our shoulders.
‘...these slow, whooshing noises are the sounds of non-threats, which is why they work to calm people . . . it’s like they’re saying: Don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry.’
Dr Orfeu Buxton, Professor of Biobehavioral Health at Pennsylvania State University.
Happiest by the Ocean
There’s also growing evidence that ocean-based activities carry therapeutic qualities. Research has found that Deptherapy Scuba Diving can offer significant well-being benefits for ex-Service personnel experiencing anxiety and PTSD, helping alleviate feelings of social dysfunction and symptoms of depression.
To me, this emphasises how the ocean can not only offer us positive emotional benefits but help to protect us from negative ones too. And while we might not all be lucky enough to have a sea within reach every day, part of the reason I feel so passionate about my ocean photography is that it can invite and transport these positive emotions into the spaces you use most. Your homes & workplaces.
Whether it’s beautiful images of the Great Barrier Reef or some of my favourite Lady Elliot Island photography - the underwater images that I choose to add to my collections are always those that really encapsulate the experience of the ocean. The calm presence and sense of space, a place to pause and reflect on the past, and to dream about the future.
It also encourages me to continue to advocate for marine conservation. Not only to help the wonderful creatures that call the sea home, but also to preserve the positive psychological benefits of the sea for future generations to enjoy.
So, now you know a little more about the psychology of the sea…What does the ocean mean to you? What emotions or memories do my images evoke? What story does the sea sing to you?
Take the time to reflect and let me know. I’d love to hear your thoughts.