WRITTEN BY CLAIRE MCCLUSKEY
“The ship was making her way steadily through small waves which slapped her and then fizzled like effervescing water, leaving a little border of bubbles and foam on either side.” -Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out
For the last five days, with the exception of one barely visible tanker in the far-off distance, we have encountered no other boats in this watery corner of the South Pacific. We are 14 people, living in our very own world at the centre of a 10 mile wide circle of blue. S/V TravelEdge dips and cuts cleanly through the clear water, leaving a lacy trail of sea foam and spume that billows out beneath and behind us, with a soft swish of sight and sound. I could watch this all day.
It’s certainly been an adjustment for many of us, settling into the rhythm and routine of life on board. A common complaint is brain fog – the inability to concentrate as nausea, fatigue, and over-stimulation by a novel environment impacts each of us in different ways. Regular administrative tasks take longer than on land and many report that simple mental processing has temporarily slowed right down. Looking to the water as we make our way kind of helps, I find. It is hypnotic, and in this way, soothing and refreshing.
There is a term for this type of mental-massage that is brought on by looking at the water, a state of sustained yet gentle attention, known as ‘Soft Fascination’. In his book “The Blue Mind: How water makes you happier, more connected and better at what you do”, Wallace J Nichols writes about this phenomenon, and how “in the motion of water we see patterns that never exactly repeat themselves yet have a restful similarity to them. Our eyes are drawn to the combination of novelty and repetition, the necessary criteria for the restfulness of “involuntary attention”.
Soft Fascination has been proven to powerfully induce restful and restorative effects on the mind. And yet is rare that contemporary life affords this opportunity for involuntary attention, as our surroundings and technologies are primed to maximise profits within the attention economy. Of course, out here at sea we are cut off from phone signal and any updates from home and the media. Crew member Natasha receives a notification that her phone screen time is down a massive 95% from last week, a sharp drop-off from when we were still on land. And it’s quite nice actually – for better or worse, we are all more present, more *here*. And with ample time to be watching the waves.
The state of involuntary attention induced by contact with nature enables our minds to calm down, and catch up. Some studies even stress “the necessity of a rich non-human environment as crucial to healthy psychological development in human beings” (Paul Shepard,’Nature and Madness’). But not to worry, for all of you reading this from the stability of land – opportunities for involuntary attention or ‘soft fascination’ are not only to be found in the open ocean. The human mind finds respite in so many patterns occurring in nature – such as rustling leaves, pattering rain, flickering fire.
Desert Island Song: “Where is my mind” by Pixies
Luxury Items: Endless supply of Cadbury’s Creme Eggs