Why humans are so drawn to water

By Jessamy Baldwin

My skin’s hot with the afternoon sun’s rays, I’m gazing out at a lighthouse across a millpond-like stretch of sea and my toes are cool with the lapping tide. I feel refreshed, present and content. Cue sigh.

Water has always been a sanctuary for me – lakes, rivers, the sea, a hot bath, a deep swimming pool; it’s where I’m happiest and feel most… me. And I’m not alone. It’s human nature to seek out large expanses of water.

It’s not surprising though, given that for millions of years, humans and our ancestors before us have needed water to survive – or at least benefited from its presence. While so many of us bang on about our love for all-things-aqua, there’s a perfectly plausible and scientific explanation behind our attraction. I hate to burst your bubble, but let’s take the plunge!

Neuroscientist Michael Crawford of the University of North London argues that once humans separated from apes and left the forests of Africa, they stayed close to rivers and beaches where they began to eat fish and seafood. He claims the increased consumption of omega-3 fatty acids helped to promote brain growth, and that humans’ intelligence increased significantly after we sought out water.

There’s no denying that water draws us in and fascinates us. In fact, I don’t think I could live anywhere there wasn’t a river, lake or the sea nearby. Without any of the above, I feel quite claustrophobic in fact.

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Thankfully however, water is the most omnipresent substance on Earth and, along with air, it’s the primary ingredient for supporting life as we know it. There are approximately 332.5 million cubic miles of water on Earth—96% of it salt water. What’s more, water covers more than 70% of the Earth’s surface and 95% percent of those waters are yet to be fully explored by mankind.

Maps of the world’s population show that the majority of us today live close to water – 80% to be precise. Whether it’s on the edges of lakes, alongside the ocean, near to rivers, next to streams or on islands – we gravitate towards H2O.

Over half a billion people owe their livelihoods directly to water, and two-thirds of the global economy is derived from activities that involve water in some form. Moreover, approximately one billion people worldwide rely primarily on water-based sources for protein.

We use water for drinking, cooking, cleansing, working, exercise and travel. According to The Cambridge Water Company, the average person in the UK uses 150 gallons of water every single day. Around 45 litres is used in just a five minute shower!

Our intrinsic relationship with water goes far deeper than economics, food or proximity mind you. Our ancient ancestors came out of the water and evolved from swimming to crawling to walking. Human foetuses still have “gill-slit” structures in their early stages of development, and we spend our first nine months of life immersed in the “watery” environment of our mother’s womb. When we’re born, our bodies are approximately 78% water. As we age, that number drops to below 60% — but the brain continues to be made of 8% percent water.

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The human body as a whole has almost the same density as water, which enables us to float. In its mineral composition, the water in our cells is comparable to that of the sea. Science writer Loren Eiseley describes human beings as: “A way that water has of going about, beyond the reach of rivers.”

We are inspired by water. Hearing it, seeing it, smelling it in the air, playing in it, walking next to it, painting it, surfing, swimming or fishing in it, writing about it, reading about it, photographing it and creating lasting memories along its edge. Water drives many of our decisions and desires. From the seafood we eat, times spent with friends and family, our most romantic moments, where we live, the activities or sports we enjoy and the ways in which we travel or relax.

Archaeologist Brian Fagan says: “Water is something that humanity has cherished since the beginning of history and it means something different to everyone.” We all have our own unique relationship and set of memories with water. It’s where we came from originally and it’s where we naturally flock to recharge, rehydrate and reconnect.

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Marine biologist Wallace J Nicholas states: “We are beginning to learn that our brains are hardwired to react positively to water and that being near it can calm and connect us, increase innovation and insight, and even heal what’s broken,”

To the beach?

Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.
— W. H. Auden

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me),
It’s always our self we find in the sea.
E.E. Cummings100 Selected Poems

A version of this article appeared in GSYLife magazine’s July ‘aqua’ issue.

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