Maya Gabeira in her home away from home. Photo: Red Bull/ Brian Bielmann

Maya Gabeira gets a scientific mood boost from the water. Photo: Red Bull/ Brian Bielmann

The Inertia

You probably surf because you love it; it puts you in a good mood, gives you a sense of perspective, and just feels good. New research suggests surfing may also boost your creativity.

Creativity is highest when mood and positivity are high. Exercise and being near water elevates both of these variables. University of Toronto professor of psychology Adam Anderson recommends getting outside and doing a fun activity when you’re having trouble solving a problem. A Stanford study found that 90% of people were more creative after they exercised. There is plenty of anecdotal literature to support this finding as well. Kurt Vonnegut swam laps. Beethoven took walks. Many acclaimed musicians, actors, and writers have been known to surf, including Jimmy Buffett, Tom Hanks, and Agatha Christie.

Research shows that moving the body is correlated with increased divergent and convergent thinking – factors used to measure creativity. Divergent thinking describes the generation of many new ideas while convergent thinking applies to the generation of a single solution. Physical activity enhances the function of the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain important for creativity. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” to describe the state of focus and energy that artists, musicians, and athletes feel when accomplishing their best work. This state can be compared to the “surfer’s stoke” – the blissful, Zen-like state that comes with riding waves.

Though all types of physical activity have been shown to boost mood and creativity, exercising in, on, or near water may have an even more powerful impact. Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols has dedicated much of his career to studying the positive effects of water on the mind and body. He talks about how our “always on” lifestyle and constant engagement with technology can lead to memory problems, anxiety, depression, and chronic stress. Professor Ruth Ann Atchley’s research at the University of Kansas found that reading email and checking text messages may inhibit creativity for as long as five minutes each time. Being around water gives our minds a rest from this constant overstimulation.

The ocean has especially calming properties. Nichols writes that the monochromatic color and hypnotic movement of the waves can induce a meditative state. His research shows that exposure to water actually switches our brain to a different mode of engagement – the mode associated with daydreams, imagination, and insight. It is no surprise that this default mode is extremely important for creativity. You may have noticed that your best ideas arise when you let your mind wander. Studies show that a period of “incubation” – or taking a break from a project – results in the generation of even more ideas.

Undeniably, there is a great deal of research indicating that exercise in or around water is highly effective in reducing stress, boosting mood, and turning on the brain’s creative mode of engagement. The next time you’re in a jam at work or in life, maybe it is time to pick up your surfboard and ride some waves. You might just come up with a solution while doing what you love.


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