The Primal Vista: Why We Crave Water Views

Every summer, Mark and I reserve one vacation week for a trip to the quaint Cape Cod town of Wellfleet, Massachusetts. No chateau in Chinon, palazzo in Paris or castle in Cardiff, just a few rooms with a view—an ocean view.

Wellfleet Harbor

Duck Creek, Wellfleet Harbor, Photo: J. M. Ward

Like many New Englanders, we start our pilgrimage with a stress-filled drive down Route 128 in bumper-to-bumper traffic before crossing the Sagamore Bridge over the Cape Cod canal.  After the first whiff of salt air, sight of brush pines and glimpse of bay views, everything changes. We relax and start to fantasize about owning a cottage overlooking the beach.

Why are we so taken with ocean views?

It turns out that water views tap into what our brain truly wants to see.

Wellfleet Beach

Indian Neck Beach, Wellfleet, Photo: J. M. Ward

Biologist E.O. Wilson writes that humans evolved with a genetic predisposition for nature which he calls “biophilia” and with that comes an “innate attraction to water, distant views and lush vegetation.” Our ancestors lived in the African, European and Asian savanna, so we arrive in this world hard-wired to appreciate sandy expanses, scattered trees and water views—just like those on Cape Cod.

This primal vista feels safe and familiar because we are descendants of hunter-gatherers who needed to see clearly if approaching animals or fellow humans were friend or foe, find sustenance near water and escape the elements beneath trees.

And it’s not just New Englanders seeking water views. “The magnetic appeal of beautiful landscapes [similar to savannas]” attract “people in very different cultures all over the world,” says Denis Dutton during a 2010 TED talk called A Darwinian Theory of Beauty. He described these preferred landscapes in terms of a Hudson River School aesthetic with “open spaces, covered with low grass, interspersed with trees. And if you add water to the scene—either directly in view, or as a distant bluish cast that the eye takes as an indication of water—the desirability of that landscape skyrockets.”

Marine Biologist, Wallace J. Nichols says, “We know instinctively that being by water makes us healthier, happier, reduces stress, and brings us peace” then he takes it one step further. By using brain scanning hardware and eye-tracking software, he tests the brain’s response to watery stimulus and describes the results in his book, Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. His mission? To “consider a fundamental question: what happens when our most complex organ—the brain—meets the planet’s largest feature—water?”

Whitecrest Beach, Wellfleet

Whitecrest Beach, Wellfleet, Photo: J. M. Ward

So without realizing it, I now see that our annual expedition to the Cape is based on our genetic predisposition for the water views of our ancestral home and a self-preservation mechanism from a stressful world. Rested and restored after a week on the Cape, I set aside my fantasy of beachfront property—until next summer—and tape those ocean view photos above my desk. For when we dream about our idealized future, we are really seeing our ideal past.

Janice M. Ward, Writer
Ann Sussman, Contributor/Editor


Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, by Ann Sussman and Justin B. Hollander

Why our brains love the ocean: Science explains what draws humans to the sea” by Wallace J. Nichols in Salon Magazine.

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