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July 2, 2024 48 mins

Why is a fountain in an urban environment so inviting and, at least to some extent, so calming? In this classic episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, Robert and Joe discuss human fountain culture and the seeming benefits of urban blue space. (originally published 05/25/2023)

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Speaker 1 (00:06):
Hello, and welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind. My
name is Joe McCormick. This week we have a holiday,
so for today we are bringing you a Vault episode.
This one originally aired May twenty fifth, twenty twenty three.
It's the episode that Rob and I did about fountains,
fountains as an architectural feature, and more broadly, about the

(00:27):
idea of urban blue space. So we hope you enjoy.

Speaker 2 (00:34):
Welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind, a production of iHeartRadio.

Speaker 3 (00:44):
Hey, you welcome to Stuff to Blow your Mind. My
name is Robert.

Speaker 1 (00:47):
Lamb and I'm Joe McCormick.

Speaker 3 (00:50):
So the title for this episode comes from a poem
by English poet Elizabeth Jennings With nineteen twenty six through
two thousand and one. This poem contains the lines observe
it there the fountain, too fast for shadows, too wild
for the lights which illuminate it, to hold even a
moment an ounce of water back. The poem in full

(01:14):
details how we might observe a fountain in an urban
center and makes a comparison to more ancient traditions. Joe,
were you familiar with this poem or this poet prior
to this episode. She was a new one for me.

Speaker 1 (01:27):
I'm not sure the name is familiar, but I need
to look up more of her stuff to see if
there's anything I recognize.

Speaker 3 (01:33):
Well. This poem fountain, Like I say, it also connects
back to some of these more ancient traditions that are
reflected in our tradition of spending times with fountains and
other water features. Just to read another bit from it,
quote see in that stress and image of utter calm,
a stillness. There it is how we must have felt

(01:55):
once at the edge of some perpetual stream, fearful of touching,
bringing no thirst at all, panicked by no perception of ourselves,
but drawing the water down to the deepest wonder well.

Speaker 1 (02:07):
That phrasing gives a much profounder spin to the kind
of awe that I recall feeling when looking at fountains
as a child. Particularly, what I remember is a fountain
in the mall in my hometown when I was a
kid that had a kind of kind of a tile
mosaic bottom that was always covered in pennies. I guess

(02:28):
the idea was that people would throw pennies into the
fountain and make a wish at least that's what I
was always told you did, and I really liked to
do this, and I think firmly believed in the magic
of the wish granting powers of the fountain.

Speaker 3 (02:42):
I didn't even think about fountains and water features and malls.
But oh man, shopping malls had some great ones, as
far as I remember, and of course smaller at the time,
so they seemed more gigantic, you know, some sort of
a fountain there in the atrium of the mall, beautifull
to behold.

Speaker 1 (03:01):
I do remember thinking when I saw all of the
pennies on the bottom. I also thought, at some point
they they must clean all those up, because it's not
like overflowing with pennies. They've got to go in and
get them.

Speaker 3 (03:14):
And then my.

Speaker 1 (03:15):
Thought as a child was who gets to keep all
that money? That's so much money when you collect all
of them, you know, that's got to be tens of dollars.

Speaker 3 (03:26):
I mean, this is why that one scene in the
Goonies I think was so impactful, the extrapolation of our
dreams of harvesting the coins of a fountain.

Speaker 1 (03:36):
You know, oh, is that is that in the Goonies.
I don't remember that they had the same thought I did.

Speaker 3 (03:41):
Well, No, they in the goonies, if memory serves, it's
been a long time since I've seen it. There's that
there's like these caverns beneath the wishing well and that's
where all the coins are, and one of the kids
goes to steal a bunch of them, and they're like, no, no,
those are peaceful people's wishes. You're not supposed to take them,
and the children, you know, abstain, and ultimately they have
pirates gold on the radar.

Speaker 1 (04:01):
So this well, I didn't make the connection. I did
believe in the wish granting powers, and I did greedily
lust after all of the penny money, but I didn't
think that would be stealing people's wishes. It's already granted
right once the pennies there. Now it's just free money.

Speaker 3 (04:16):
Yeah. I don't know how that. It depends on superstitious
share I guess how it works. But at any rate,
I yeah, I always am curious to see if a
fountain has coins, and even though I don't nowadays, I'm
not thinking about harvesting them. I'm still just one of
the things I kind of like am checking off the
mental checklist when I check out a fountain, are there
coins in it? What's the filtration system look like? You know,

(04:37):
where's the water coming out of? Like, if there's a
fountain somewhere, I need to get closer to it so
I can take it all in. Beyond that, I don't
think I'd ever really thought about, you know, any universal
truths about the calming nature of fountains. I've always just
kind of in the back of my mind thought, well,
they're nice. Sometimes they have interesting statues incorporated into their design.

(05:00):
They can be cooling on a hot day, that sort
of thing, and they're often like at the center of everything,
you know. I think of like the fountain in Washington Square,
you know, I think about the indeed, the fountains in
the atrium at a mall, at a shopping mall, which
was like a center of community in some respects.

Speaker 1 (05:19):
Well, and yet another way that the fountain was sacred
to my child's brain. But taking some of the profound
varnish off of it, I do associate the idea of
a fountain with the smell of the mall food court,
you know. It's that's where the saborrow mingles with the
with the Kariaki place Yeah, the mall.

Speaker 3 (05:39):
Food court of our childhoods. This is a place where
you also had freedom, like suddenly you could often often
the case, you could choose what you were going to eat,
and it made you feel powerful. But coming back to
water features and fountains specifically, of course, we have to
think larger than that. We have to think of two
about just like running water, bodies of water in general.

(06:01):
And you know, personally, and I think this applies somewhat universally.
I've always found waters to be calming to be around.
They're often great places to do some thinking or to
do less thinking in a good way, you know, to
sort of unshackle from your normal thought process. And I
think I've mentioned before on the show that there's a

(06:22):
very useful stress reduction exercise that makes use of this connection.
It's called leaves on a stream. It's a cognitive diffusion
technique that allows you to distance yourself from the thoughts
that you're having. So the way it goes, and you
can look this up online. There are plenty of online
resources that spell it out in more detail. But you

(06:42):
imagine yourself seated beside a running stream. You imagine taking
a given thought, essentially taking it out of yourself, placing
it upon a floating leaf and allowing the stream to
carry that leaf and the thought away from you. And
you know, everyone's mile wage may vary, but I find
it very constructive. But I was thinking about it again here,

(07:03):
thinking about fountains, thinking about natural bodies of water, and
they're calming powers.

Speaker 1 (07:10):
It does seem like an especially nice image for concretizing
your emotions and your thoughts because it's passive, like the
water does the carrying away for you, So it doesn't
even involve you having to imagine, like forcing or shoving
the idea away. It is just carried away by nature.

Speaker 3 (07:28):
Yeah. Yeah, Now we've talked a bit on the show
previously about the history and importance of public water works.
We're not going to reach at all of that here,
but I wanted to at least touch on some of
it in this case via a twenty fifteen article titled
Short Global History of Fountains by Juty at All, published
in the journal Water. That's pointed out that the word

(07:49):
fountain stems from the Latin fawns, which can refer to
both artificial and natural water features. Not like the fawns
on happy Days, but fots. I've also read that the
source is fontana, which informs the medieval fount or source,
and so fountain becomes a symbol of a providing source

(08:12):
as well. Like this idea of a fountain as being
this thing from which something else beneficial arises becomes pretty
crucial to a lot of a lot of our language. Now.
The construction of fountains properly dates back to ancient times,
and the authors of this paper point out that regional
water availability played a role in what form fountains took

(08:35):
and how they were fed. For instance, they mentioned that
for the ancient Egyptians bringing water out for the people
or for personal use, it was a matter of pulling
water from the Mighty Nile. Meanwhile, the Minoans and the
Greeks brought water down from the mountains via aqueducts. So
this is something to keep in mind. There's the sort of,

(08:56):
especially when you go back into the origins of fountains,
a lot more practical purposes in mind for having that
water there, And then how do you get the water there?
You're not just piping it in from the local modern
water system, you know, there are other means that have
to be in place. One of the primary purposes for
ancient fountains was of course to bring water to the

(09:18):
people for drinking, as well as for other uses such
as bathing. We've talked about that on the show before.
Another big one that I hadn't thought as much about.
And I guess part of this is because we haven't
We've touched on firefighting, but we haven't done a lot
on firefighting. But this was another reason to have a
source of water available in a center of the population.

Speaker 1 (09:40):
I think we actually did a pretty extensive look at
firefighting in our Invention episode on the fire extinguisher.

Speaker 3 (09:48):
Yeah, and we got into like fire extinguisher grenades and
so forth.

Speaker 1 (09:52):
Yeah, But going into ancient history, how the fire fighting
in ancient Rome and how it had a very different
character because if I remember correctly, the early version in
maybe like the first century BCE or so, there was
like a rich guy who instituted fire brigades who would
come to your house if it was on fire, not
to like as a public service, put it out for you,

(10:14):
but to say, hey, I will buy your house for
the following price, take it or leave it. And if
you know, if you agreed to let this guy buy
your house, then his dudes would put out the fire.

Speaker 3 (10:27):
Yeah. I think there's a scene in one of Stevens
Sailor's Gordiana's books that take place in ancient Rome where
this exact situation takes place with like the building burning
down and this guy shows up and he's like, well,
you know, it looks like your property is really plummeting
in value. Now would be a great time to sell

(10:49):
to me, as opposed to five minutes from now.

Speaker 1 (10:51):
Wicked in an especially hilarious way. But of course, you know,
later on the idea of firefighting as a public service
that benefits everyone does develop, and yeah, of course there
are a lot of different ways to fight fires, and
not all of them involve water. Of course, some involve
like you know, pulling down structures to create barriers to
fire spreading and things like that. But yeah, water of

(11:12):
course is quite often one of the most important tools
in fighting fires.

Speaker 3 (11:17):
Now. One of the things about bringing water into a city,
one of the problems here are potential potential problems, is well,
you're gonna have to deal with drainage, removal, fouled water,
and various public health challenges that can emerge from public
water works and that can get into things like you know,
I have to worry about water borne ill illnesses, potentially mosquitoes,

(11:40):
things of that nature. So systems to bring water into
a city these were extremely important for human civilizations, and
we see them in all the major civilizations of the
ancient world as well as the various ancient civilizations of
the New World. The earliest carved water based and apparently
dates back to three thousand BC in the Mesopotamian site

(12:02):
of Tello, and a stone fountain figure in another Mesopotamian site,
Mari dates back to two thousand BCE. This would basically
be in line with the common fountain trope that we've
seen again and again of a goddess holding a base
of some sort that releases piped in water, just sort

(12:25):
of an irresistible image. And I guess part of this
comes down to, like what a fountain does that like
recasts the idea of water being gifted to people.

Speaker 1 (12:34):
As if from a morton Joe, Yeah.

Speaker 3 (12:38):
Yeah. The Romans were, of course masters of hydraulics, which
they adopted from the Etruscan civilization, and the Roman tradition
greatly influenced the medieval fountain tradition to follow Now. One
thing in this paper that I thought was really interesting.
They point out that in China, wells and streams were
along the primary source of water, so wells tend to

(12:58):
play the role we see public fountains play in other
parts of the world. In some of these Mesopotamian accounts,
these public wells were crucial as well to city planning.
These would be the things that you plan the structure
of the city around. They also note that quote spring
and structures have also assumed characteristics of fountains in China,

(13:23):
so what we might think of as proper fountains were
also introduced and built in urban and palace settings later
over the course of centuries. But sometimes you might have
something just constructed where a spring emerges or where a
spring has come to, and this will sort of take
on the building and appearance of a western fountain. Now.

(13:45):
The authors even include discussion of modern and industrial age
water kiosks in the paper, which serve the purpose of
distributing clean water to the people, though without most of
the more esthetically pleasing ass that you associate with a
public fountain. Nowadays, you can look up images of various

(14:06):
water kiosks that I believe They're especially common in subs
of how in Africa a place where people can go
and get water, and it often takes on a more
I guess, sort of commercial appearance. I mean it looks
like a little a little shop in many cases. Sometimes
they even you see something that looks more like a
vending machine. And you can also make comparisons like water

(14:29):
kiosk and say public ice dispensary, you know those, you
see these especially, we see these a lot in the
United States. I know, when you go into rural areas
and there's like the standalone machine that you can pull
up to, you pay the machine and you get some ice.
You know you are buying water, albeit in a frozen form,

(14:50):
from that machine. Right now, that Beings said, I guess
water kiosks could still be considered like a social center,
a place where people are going for water. And while
most of the examp I was looking at seem largely
transactional and functional, I suppose it doesn't have to be
the case. Though. When I looked around for like more
pleasing designs and water kiosks, the only thing that was

(15:12):
coming up for me were various design competitions that were
more situated in say London and were essentially coming up
with water fountain designs that you know, looked crazy things
that weren't necessarily I think, actually brought to life in
urban settings. But I don't know. Maybe there have been

(15:33):
efforts to sort of evolve water kiosk sites throughout the
rest of the world as well. I'm not sure.

Speaker 1 (15:40):
Well, this idea sort of highlights the two different faces
of the civic water dispensing area. So you can have
on one hand, something that is functional that is there.
It's a place for people to get water that they
need for you know, everything in life basically that you
need in order to drink, to cook, to clean and
so forth. And then the other idea is water based

(16:02):
infrastructure that is there to be enjoyed, maybe the same
way that a park would be there to be enjoyed.

Speaker 3 (16:09):
I think in the popular imagination, something that brings all
these together is of course, the chocolate factory of Willy Wonka,
where we see the chocolate mixed by waterfall. It is
a pleasing water fall to behold. You're not supposed to
swim in it, of course, but still, you know, some
uses of the chocolate are available via fountain. And then

(16:32):
of course we do have chocolate chocolate fountains at events
and all. So it is weird how we get into
this use of fountains, both in the imagination and in reality,
for liquids that are not drinking water.

Speaker 1 (16:44):
Why do the culinary fountains always go in the sweet direction.
I want to see more savory ones, you know. So
it's the nacho cheese fountain, the gravy fountain. I don't
know what. Maybe cheese fondue fountain. I guess that's pretty
similar to nacho cheese.

Speaker 3 (16:58):
Well that that surely exists, right, some sort of a
cheese fountain, I suppose, I would guess. Anyway, Coming back
to this Water Journal paper, the authors here, they stressed
that fountains also often stood as symbols of power and wealth.
Somebody builds them, someone provides them for the people. But
there's still this calming element to the urban fountain, offering
sites and sounds conducive to relaxation that are frequently cited

(17:22):
in histories and literature. As many of the practical reasons
for public fountains declined in modern times, the esthetic elements
remained in play, including the soothing sites and sounds of
the running water. Another interesting point. This is something I
read in Fountains as Reservoirs of myth and memory from
Myths on the Map the Storied Landscapes of Ancient Greece

(17:45):
from twenty seventeen by Betsy A. Robinson, or this section
about fountains is by Robinson, and in this they point
out that public fountains, specifically those in Greek traditions, were
also a means of quote, connecting past and present and
establishing authority by the manipulation of architectural form and the

(18:07):
selective retelling of stories. So I found that fascinating to
think about and be reminded of, because the public fountain
here is both a means of bringing water to the
people but also conceptualizing the deliverer of that water by
means of myth and legends reflected in the carvings, the
statues and so forth then make up a given fountain.

(18:30):
For instance, who is the goddess that is pouring forth
the water, and what is that goddess's relationship to the
people in power at the moment, etc.

Speaker 1 (18:41):
Yes, flowing water almost kind of naturally tells the story,
or it easily can be narrativized in some way by
filling in the infrastructure around it with images and representations.

Speaker 3 (18:54):
Yeah. Can you imagine if our primary sources of water
today are faucets, What if by law they were required
to resemble entities or beings or specific people in power
as they're bringing forth your precious drinking or dishwashing water.

Speaker 1 (19:12):
Yes, the faucet is like your local water commissioner's face
and the water is coming out of their mouth or
something like vomiting the water to you.

Speaker 3 (19:21):
Yeah. Anyway, the main idea we're exploring this episode, though,
is the idea that there is something soothing, calming, and
mentally restoring about public fountains, something that may, you know,
subjectively seem to be the case with many of us,

(19:43):
but you know, is there something more objective there as well.
There's actually been a fair amount of, certainly recent scholarship
on the topic that we're going to touch on in
this We we're going to get into this idea of
blue spaces.

Speaker 1 (19:57):
So in the.

Speaker 3 (19:57):
World of urban land use planning, there's green space obviously,
you know, we think of gardens, trees, whole parks, et cetera.
And then there's a subset of green space known as
blue space, and the blue of course, refers to water,
you know, as water is often blue on the map,
if not in actual visual appearance, and it entails all

(20:19):
manner of naturally occurring and artificial water features, including fountains. Now,
once again it's important to stress that proximity to natural
and or artificial blue spaces has always come with certain
additional risks and potential dangers. We talked about those already,
but there's also this compelling idea that blue spaces are
an overall mental and or physical health benefit to those

(20:41):
with access to the feature. And on one hand, this
basic idea would seem to line up with the late EO.
Wilson's biophilia hypothesis, something we've talked about on the show before.

Speaker 1 (20:54):
Yeah, this is kind of interesting. So we've done multiple
episodes exploring and critiquing the biophilia HIH hypothesis at length
in the past, so we're not going to go into
a great depth on that again here, but briefly, in
Wilson's words, this would have been what he believed was
quote the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.

(21:15):
So the argument goes that there is something in our
brains that calls us to be fascinated by and attracted
to other forms of life beyond just the obvious and
direct benefits to our survival that we would get from them.
So it's obvious why you would be attracted to, say
an animal or a plant that you might eat for food,
but that our fascination by an attraction to life forms

(21:39):
goes way beyond this, goes to you things that you
can't eat, things that you can't necessarily get any tangible,
quantifiable benefit from. We still these other life forms, We
still want to see and touch and spend time around them,
and when they're not present in our lives, we feel
a kind of we feel that loss as a kind

(22:00):
of malaise or unhappiness. And so a funny thing here
about water is that, of course moving water is very
often associated with the suite of esthetic and environmental preferences
suggested by the biophilia hypothesis. Yet of course water is
itself not alive. It, like rocks and air, is part

(22:21):
of the inorganic environment. And yet of course the presence
of water is greatly associated with the presence of life. Basically,
all life on Earth needs water to survive, and it's
not an accident that when you know you're walking through
the desert and you come to an oasis, it is
suddenly surrounded by forms of life that were not found
in the surrounding landscape.

Speaker 3 (22:41):
Yeah. Yeah, And you know, you can make the argument,
you know, we're hardwired to appreciate something like a nice
flowing stream as opposed to another body of water. How
would Donald Pleasants put it, Joe.

Speaker 1 (22:53):
Oh, the spirit of dark and lonely waters.

Speaker 3 (22:55):
Yeah. Yeah, the dark and lonly water.

Speaker 1 (22:57):
That's it, ready to trap the unware, the show off,
the fool.

Speaker 3 (23:04):
In this, we're of course referring to something we discussed
in an older Halloween episode What Jenny Green Teeth? But
it was what a British public service advertisement or video
message warning you against stagnant ponds and the danger to
young children posed there.

Speaker 1 (23:22):
Right, warning children not to play in the in the
pools of black liquid that gather in abandoned buildings.

Speaker 3 (23:29):
Yeah. So yeah, thinking about biophilia hypothesis and in light
of all this is interesting and I was I was
looking around in in the book that Wilson co wrote
on it, and at one point mentioned he mentions that
while uphill or spraying aspects of artificial fountains rarely occur

(23:49):
in nature. He points that, you know, obviously the geysers,
but uh, but but still, even if a fountain is
pumping water straight up in the air, you know, it's
still something we connect with, even if this is not
the normal way that water behaves in just the average environment.
He writes, quote, yet the motion of water in fountains
seems to have the same hypnotic attraction as water flowing

(24:13):
downhill in a waterfall. He also writes that it would
be interesting to see a study of people observing quote
quiet and repetitive motions of predators, sharks in an aquarium,
circling birds of prey, or other stalking movements of wolves
or large felines, which combine Heraclitian movement with potential danger.

(24:36):
Not just to note there, Heraclitianism is a philosophy concerning
everything except the logos remaining in flux, with the four
elements eternally cycling into each other and so forth. There's
a lot to it, but the philosopher of its namesake
Heraclitis circle of five hundred BCE. His ideas can be
basically condensed down to the idea that everything flows, that

(24:59):
everything is becoming but never being. And that does feel
like it lines up with a lot of the essence
of moving water observations and the various metaphors we form
about it. But at any rate, yeah, I like how
this flows into the idea of the attractive nature of
streams and fountains. But coming back to what you know,

(25:19):
Wilson ponders here, and I looked up. I looked it up.
I wasn't able to find any studies that actually took
the challenge here, but I was wondering, Okay, aquariums are
especially relaxing, I find, or at least the parts that
involve fish and water. Sometimes the you know, the crowds
can be a bit much, but in terms of like

(25:41):
staring in through the aquarium glass at an aquarium enclosure
can be very relaxing. Sometimes there are sharks there. Our
local aquarium has sharks, and I was trying to I
was looking back on my experiences of viewing those sharks,
and I'm like, is this relaxing? And I'm not entirely sure.
I mean, obviously for me anyway. I mean, if I'm

(26:02):
looking at a shark in a shark tank, I know
that I'm not in danger. It's not gonna, you know,
pop out of the glass at me. I'm distant from it.
On the other hand, observing large predators and zoo environments
sometimes can feel a little uncanny in my experience. You know,
like if the lion's looking right at you that sort
of thing, or you know, another large predator is eyeing

(26:24):
your toddler, your infant like that. That gets a little
that starts, you know, turning on some lights that are
kind of buried in your psyche. But in terms of
the sharks in the aquarium, I'm not sure. I asked
my wife about this and she was like, like, no, no,
it's it's absolutely relaxing. There's nothing, there's nothing stressful about

(26:46):
observing these predators. For her. I don't know if you
have any thoughts in this show.

Speaker 1 (26:50):
Well, I feel like I may have missed something.

Speaker 3 (26:52):
Here.

Speaker 1 (26:52):
Was Wilson suggesting that the predators would be relaxing. I
interpreted him to mean that the idea of a slowly
circling predator with Heraclidean movement would be like an arresting image.

Speaker 3 (27:07):
Well, I think the what I took to be the
idea is like which which energy is going to win? Out,
like the movement is relaxing, but it's a predator engaging
in the movement. In these we see traditional movements have
said predators like, what is going to be the end result?
I see?

Speaker 1 (27:24):
Yeah, Okay, Well, I'm not sure what I would say
about sharks in particular. I mean, I certainly find aquariums
incredibly relaxing, but like you also, that is, they're strongly
counteracted by the presence of loud crowds around them. But
like an viewing an aquarium in a quiet space is
I think one of the most relaxing things I can imagine.

(27:46):
I'm not sure. Yeah, I'm not sure that a shark
being in there would really change anything about it. Seeing
the sharks swimming around, I mean that assuming I'm not
in the water.

Speaker 3 (27:56):
Yeah, or in the in the captivity of a bond
villain that's right now.

Speaker 1 (28:01):
Yeah, I think that's probably still just as relaxing as
any other side of an aquarium.

Speaker 3 (28:07):
All right, Well, we've drifted off course a little bit.
Let's get back to just the basic idea that spending
time near a body of water would have some sort
of beneficial effect on you.

Speaker 1 (28:18):
Right, So, at this point, there have been a lot
of different studies investigating the impact of green and blue
spaces on human well being, and specifically, the question with
blue spaces would be does living near or spending time
near a body of water improve your mental and physical health?
And if so, how does it create those improvements? And fortunately,

(28:40):
just a couple of years ago, there was a meta
analysis that rounded up all of the existing research and
synthesized what we know so far with a special focus
on the mechanism of action the question of how blue
space works on us. The paper is called Mechanisms of
Impact of Blue Spaces on Human Health a Systematic Literature
View and meta analysis by Mikhail Georgiu at All published

(29:04):
in the journal the International Journal of Environmental Research and
Public Health in twenty twenty one, and this study begins
with the general survey of the research on the health
effects of exposure to natural environments. The authors note that
most of the research in this area has actually been
focused on something slightly different, on green spaces rather than

(29:25):
blue spaces, and this is also something we've looked at
in multiple episodes in the past. But short summary, there
is pretty strong evidence that living near or spending time
in areas where surfaces are covered in plant life, basically
where you'd be exposed to grass, trees, vegetation of various

(29:45):
sorts is correlated with a wide range of benefits in
all kinds of domains and everything from markers of physical health,
cardiovascular health, and so forth, to mental and emotional well being,
lower rates of anxiety and things like that, and even
greater cognitive performance in school children. So, in short, I
think we can say with pretty high confidence that it

(30:07):
is good for you to spend time in a park
or a forest compared to spending the same amount of
time in a landscape fully paved with metal and concrete
and plastic. Something about living near and spending time in
those kinds of environments has a wide range of benefits
for your body and mind. Now, the authors of this
study note that a lot of the research, unfortunately does

(30:31):
not disentangle the variables of exposure to blue spaces, meaning
bodies of water, including lakes, rivers, coastlines, canals, and in
some cases even smaller features like fountains and things, from
exposure to green spaces. Sometimes the presence of water is
treated as part of the definition of green spaces, sometimes not,

(30:53):
So that's unfortunate, and it would be good to separate
these variables out to see if they have effects independent
of one another, and fortunately some studies have done that.
They've separated them out and looked at blue spaces independently.
Now the first half of the question, do blue spaces
have positive effects on our well being? The answer seems

(31:13):
to be a pretty firm yes. The author's right. Recent
epidemiological studies have shown that blue spaces have a positive
effect on public health, including the reduction of mortality rate
with the greatest rate of decline seen in areas closest
to blue space, better physical health, and better mental health,
and their copious citations and support of these general statements.

(31:36):
So this brings us to the main question explored here,
which is why why is exposure to water or living
near water good for you? Why would it be good
for say, lowering your mortality or giving you better physical
health or mental health. And the authors of the study
explore four main hypothetical mechanisms, all of which are on

(31:59):
their own known to have significant positive effects on mortality,
physical health, and mental health. And these mechanisms are social interaction,
physical activity, environmental factors, and restoration. So physical activity, this
is pretty straightforward maybe blue spaces encourage people to get

(32:19):
more exercise. Getting more exercise is strongly correlated with decreased
mortality and improvements in mental and physical health. And maybe
something about living near water or having water in your
geographical area makes you more likely to exercise.

Speaker 3 (32:34):
Okay, that seems to track. Yeah.

Speaker 1 (32:37):
Second mechanism, maybe it's social interaction. Maybe blue spaces encourage
people to spend more time interacting with others rather than alone,
which again has well known, well established benefits. Third thing
is environmental factors. This refers to the effects of bodies
of water on other local environmental variables that have their

(32:58):
own effects on human well being. The author's write quote
blue spaces may contribute to a healthier environment and reduce
air pollution, heat island effect, risk of flooding, etc. And
then fourth restoration, exposure to blue spaces might improve restoration,
which they define by saying that they use the definition
from another paper. So I had to look up what

(33:20):
that paper was to get the definition, and basically it
seems to be quote recovery from depleted attentional capacity or stress.
This is also something we've explored on the show before.
But basically the question here would be whether exposure to
water sources helps people relax and recharge, to recover from

(33:41):
depleted attention spans from having you know, people spend a
lot of their attentional energy on certain types of tasks,
or not even tasks, maybe even just you know, like
scrolling their phones or something all day. This creates a
lot of stress. And then there are other types of
experiences people can have that tend to restore depleted the
tensional resources and relax you and sort of remove those

(34:04):
biomarkers of stress that people would notice, like you know,
elevated levels of cortisol and blood or in the saliva.

Speaker 3 (34:11):
Interesting. So it's kind of a satisfying exercise to take
these different factors and apply them to different sort of
activities and environments, like for instance, you think of say
a fishing pond. A number of these you can easily
check off, I don't know, physical activity. I guess you
could have a discussion there regarding fishing, and I guess
it depends on how you're going about fishing. And then likewise,

(34:32):
if you apply it to say a fountain in the
middle of a public square, that sort of thing. Some
of these more easily or checked off the list here.
But even like physical activity, I mean you think of
environments that have a fountain. I mean, I don't know
about the rest of you. I think of like children
playing inside fountain, whether they're supposed to or not. I

(34:53):
think of people doing things around the fountain. So even
if you're not, say, attempting to swim laps in the
fountain or do boating in the fountain, there still may
be physical action that is encouraged around it.

Speaker 1 (35:06):
Right, So we'll get to in a second what the
evidence for these factors or not is. But yeah, you
can't always know exactly how it works, but you can
imagine tons of possibilities, like maybe having a canal or
a river or something nearby just makes people want to
get out and go on a walk more often that
it could be. Yeah, But finally I wanted to finish

(35:27):
up my note about what the mechanism with restoration would
be if blue spaces do encourage restoration that leads to
the better effects on mental and physical health, because the
authors say, quote, stress, anxiety, depressed mood, and psychological well
being have been linked with the risk of cardiovascular diseases
and mental health issues. So that link is also firmly established.

(35:49):
So the authors did their review and analyzed all the
studies that had any results illuminating these possible mechanisms, whether
they hold true or not, and there were fifty studies total.
In their review they said twenty seven. Ultimately, they concluded
had data relevant to the meta analysis on this question,
and what they found was quote three of the four

(36:11):
hypothesized pathways physical activity, restoration, and environmental factors are supported
by empirical evidence, while findings on social interaction are inconclusive. Now.
As for physical activity, they say, people's physical activity seem
to increase with both their proximity two blue space and

(36:31):
with the total amount of blue space in their geographical
area where they lived, So it seems that both of
these factors are correlated with people getting more exercise. It
seems people get out and get more physical activity if
there is water somewhere in their neighborhood, and also more
if their home is physically closer to water. So this

(36:53):
seems like a pretty strong candidate explanation. Second one is restoration.
They found that blue space was correlated with increased restoration.
The authors write, intriguingly, the increase of amount of blue
space within a geographical area was found to be the
highest among all mediating pathways and exposures. This evidence, therefore
suggests that developing more blue spaces within neighborhoods could primarily

(37:17):
benefit the restorative character of an area. So having some
kind of blue space in your general geographic area definitely
that helps with alleviating stress. However, the interesting and kind
of surprising thing to me was that they did not
find evidence that your individual proximity to blue space had

(37:37):
an effect on restoration, and they write, quote, while urbanicity
is found to increase mental disorders through stress, we propose
that creating more blue spaces and promoting contact with them
can be used to reverse this effect and ameliorate urban living.
So it looks like another fairly strong candidate to me here,
Having more water and waterways in the general area where

(38:00):
you live seems to have a relaxation and restoration effect
on people, counteracting stress and thus achieving improvements in health.
Of course, again, chronic stress is bad for you. Now,
the other two mechanisms were more complicated or a different story.
As for environmental factors, they say, there is evidence for
a couple of things, but it's kind of complicated. So

(38:24):
the authors did find some evidence that blue spaces correlate
with lowering heat stress and with improving air quality, but
they said that the evidence base for those was kind
of small and messy, and other environmental factors they looked at,
such as effects on noise pollution and biodiversity, there was
not enough evidence to reach a conclusion. And then they

(38:45):
also say when it comes to environmental factors, there are
some that could be operating in the opposite direction, like,
as you mentioned earlier, there could be some negative environmental
effects of having water nearby, such as say, being a
vector for efect xious disease or something like that. So
this one seems to be sort of a question mark.
The evidence for the effects that are there is kind

(39:07):
of weak, and effects appear to be going in both directions.
And then finally, for social interaction, they said that the
evidence again is kind of weak. Previous findings were mixed,
but the meta analysis did not find a significant effect
of blue spaces on social interaction. But it does look
like the evidence for two of the four categories is

(39:28):
pretty strong. Having more blue space in the neighborhood and
living closer to blue space appears to increase people's amount
of physical exercise. Which has strong benefits for health, and
living in an area with more blue space in the
general geographical region has restorative effects. It helps people relax
and recharge to counteract the stress of life. Now, I

(39:50):
do want to mention that this study was focused on
blue spaces in general, and the majority of effects documented,
from what I could tell, were probably coming more from
larger nature and artificial waterways like lakes and rivers and
canals and so forth. So I don't know how much
you could map the total effects of blue space onto

(40:11):
specific things like smaller water features installations like fountains and
so forth.

Speaker 3 (40:17):
Right, So don't take this podcast episode or these various
studies here is just like clear evidence that it's time
to install that water feature in your yard, because it
might not have ultimately have that big a difference, but
who knows. Maybe it'll be delightful, maybe it will be calming.
Maybe all you need is that the sound of trickling water.

Speaker 1 (40:37):
But a lot of the more specific and detail oriented
questions out of the way, it does seem just generally
true that, yes, green space is good for mental and
physical health, and blue space also seems to be pretty
good for mental and physical health.

Speaker 3 (40:51):
Absolutely Now I was looking at a study out of
twenty twenty two titled a population based Retrospective Study on
the Modifying effect of urban blue Space on the impact

(41:11):
of socioeconomic deprivation on Mental Health twenty nine through twenty
eighteen by Giorgio at All, published in Scientific Reports.

Speaker 1 (41:20):
I think this is the same first author as the
meta analysis I just looked at.

Speaker 3 (41:25):
So this particular study quote aimed to investigate whether living
near blue space longitudinally modifies the effect of socioeconomic deprivation
on mental health the author's right quote. Hence, we study
longitudinally the impact of a large scale regeneration of the
Glasgow branch of the Fourth and Clyde Canal, an urban

(41:47):
blue space, on mental health, using routinely collected clinical data.
Now I had to look up some images of what
this area looked like. I included one here for you, Joe.
It looks nice. You basically a canal space with a
lot of vegetation grown up on one side of it,
you know, And then I mean a little bit on
the surface of the water. You have a well it

(42:09):
looks like a walking and or bicycle path, and then
some more green space and some walls and some trees
and whatnot, and it looks pleasant, looks like a place
if you lived in this area you might go to
for a bike ride or a walk, et cetera. So
a number of factors went into this localized study, including
distance one resides from the blue space, psychotropic medication prescriptions,

(42:32):
socioeconomic deprivation in the area, comorbidities, and demographics. So what
did they determined in this analysis? Will they identified a
protective modifying effect of living near the blue spaces in
relation to the impact of socioeconomic deprivation and mental health disorders.

(42:53):
So the idea here is that the blue space doesn't
completely cancel out all of the negative effects on mental health,
but it provides what they describe as a quote unquote
protective moat, which is also clever because you know it's
a water feature. But they also write that their findings
suggests that increased exposure to blue spaces rolled out in

(43:15):
urban spaces could reduce medication intake and reduce mental health
inequalities in urban areas.

Speaker 1 (43:23):
Yeah, I think it's important to note that while like
the positive effects of things like blue spaces does appear
to be pretty good, also the effects are fairly modest,
So they're not going to be like a fix all
for all of everyone's problems, but they seem to be
part of a suite of solutions to generally make life
and make urban environments more friendly and those kind of things.

(43:47):
While no one of them is going to be life changing,
probably they can add.

Speaker 3 (43:52):
Up, yeah, yeah, they can all add up to an
increase in quality of life, staving off some of these
additional mental and health issues. So something that should certainly
should be factored into urban planning, to urban restoration projects
and so forth. And you know, just on an individual level,

(44:14):
you know, you can feel a little better about taking
time out of your day to be near water, be
it in the form of you know, some sort of
an artificial pond, fountain, et cetera, or you know, local
bodies of water and so forth.

Speaker 1 (44:27):
You know, there's something I wonder about that I haven't
seen this sited in any papers we were looking at
or anything. This is just kind of an amusing but
I wonder if there is some psychological benefit or quality
of life benefit to just having something near you that
is an excuse for you to go do something you

(44:48):
don't have to do, you know, and it can be anything.
It can be. You could be a park, or it
could be a pathway near your house or something just
an excuse to like an excuse to go do something
that is not work and is not like a screen.
Does that make sense?

Speaker 3 (45:06):
Yeah? Yeah, And that you know, ultimately occupies your mind
in a way that that may force out other thoughts
and other preoccupations. You know that that taps into, you know,
our basic primal wiring to see what's going on over
there by the water? Are there ducks? What are the
ducks doing are they are they mining their own business

(45:28):
or are they looking at me suspiciously? Are there coins
in the fountain? Et cetera. And again, if you're on
the fence about building that coy pond, you know, don't
don't build it just because you listen to this episode.
But also maybe don't not build it.

Speaker 1 (45:41):
We're not saying it's going to be a cure all
but also, hey, you know, water's nice, why not go
for it?

Speaker 3 (45:46):
It might be nice.

Speaker 1 (45:47):
Now, the one thing I would hesitate on is throwing
pennies in the pond with the fish.

Speaker 3 (45:52):
Oh absolutely, yeah.

Speaker 1 (45:53):
I don't know that that's a bad idea, but I
have a hunch.

Speaker 3 (45:56):
Oh, I mean, based on all the signs I see
places I go, they say, don't throw the coins in
because they're not good for the fish or the turtles
or what have you. So unless it is a designated
wishing fountain, don't cast your wishes because it's you know,
it's not gonna work. All right, we're gonna go ahead and
close this episode out, but we'd love to hear from
everyone out there. What are your thoughts on green spaces

(46:19):
and blue spaces, on naturally occurring bodies of water and fountains.
Do you have a favorite that you have observed or
hang out around frequently? Let us know. We don't love
to hear from you. Also, thanks to my wife who
suggested this episode. We were kind of casting around and
I would I said, hey, what what would you like
to hear an episode about? And she said, oh, I've

(46:41):
heard heard some about some studies regarding blue spaces, and
so we looked into it and here we are. If
you would like to catch up on past episodes of
the show, well you can find them in the Stuff
to Blow your Mind podcast feed. We have core episodes
on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We have episodes of Listener Mail
on Monday's short form Artifact or Monster Fact episodes on Wednesdays.

(47:04):
On Fridays, we set aside most serious concerns to just
talk about a weird film on Weird House Cinema. And
in terms of that fire Extinguisher episode of Invention that
we mentioned offhand, I cannot remember if we have republished
that one in the Stuff to Blow Your podcast feed,
I assume that we have, but there is also a
separate abandoned podcast feed for Invention, which is a show

(47:27):
we did for a period based on inventions, so you
can also find it there if you wish.

Speaker 1 (47:32):
Huge thanks to our audio producer JJ Posway. If you
would like to get in touch with us with feedback
on this episode or any other, to suggest a topic
for the future, or just to say hello, you can
email us at contact at stuff to Blow your Mind
dot com.

Speaker 2 (47:53):
Stuff to Blow Your Mind is production of iHeartRadio. For
more podcasts from my Heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app podcasts,
or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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