We all know how mesmerizing it can be to stand in the semi-darkness of a quiet aquarium and watch the slow undulating patterns of life flicker before us. But is that oversized fish tank at the doctor's office anything more than just a distraction? It turns out you might be doing yourself good just by sitting there. According to new research from the U.K., spending time in aquariums and watching fish tanks can improve your mental and physical health.
The study, published in the journal Environment & Behavior, suggests that losing yourself in the aquatic ballet can lead to a significant lowering of blood pressure and heart rate and that the higher the number of fish on display the longer people watch and so improve their health and mood. The study, which the researchers say is the first of its kind, brings together experts from the National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth University and the University of Exeter.
The effects of so-called aquarium therapy have been previously debated by behavioral psychologists but, in this study, the team had a unique opportunity that helped them conduct their research. When the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth refurbished one of its main exhibits — a large 550,000-liter tank designed to contain a variety of marine life — and began a phased introduction of different types of fish, the researchers were able to record and assess people's physical and mental responses in a controlled setting.
While previous research has shown that spending time in "natural" environments creates a calming effect, most of the data has come from what lead researcher Deborah Cracknell calls "greenspace" — that is, countryside, gardens and parks. There have been, she says, relatively fewer studies carried out in "bluespace" — for example, coastal regions — and fewer still in indoor aquatic environments.
The scientists looked at the mood, heart rate and blood pressure of study participants as fish numbers in the exhibit gradually increased. "As the exhibit was being gradually restocked over a period of time, we had a look at three different time points to see how people responded," Cracknell says. "Just watching a tank with the light and the movement of artificial seaweed was quite relaxing for people, but when we added fish, it definitely made a difference."
Cracknell believes the study provides an important first step toward understanding how we relate to these settings. "Fish tanks and displays are often associated with attempts at calming patients in doctors' surgeries and dental waiting rooms," she says. "This study has, for the first time, provided robust evidence that 'doses' of exposure to underwater settings could actually have a positive impact on people's well-being."
Further research is needed to show exactly what it is about the aquarium that helps relax people. Cracknell suggests it could be the effects of particular species, combinations of species or even the specific movements of certain fish that cause physical reactions in people. "When we were looking at different types of exhibits, there was a strong theme coming through that people really did like the tropical fish and particularly high numbers of marine life," she says.
Her colleague, environmental psychologist Dr. Mathew White, says: "Our findings have shown improvements for health and well-being in highly managed settings, providing an exciting possibility for people who aren't able to access outdoor natural environments. If we can identify the mechanisms that underpin the benefits we're seeing, we can effectively bring some of the 'outside inside' and improve the well-being of people without ready access to nature."
Another member of the team, Dr Sabine Pahl, says: "While large public aquariums typically focus on their educational mission, our study suggests they could offer a number of previously undiscovered benefits. In times of higher work stress and crowded urban living, perhaps aquariums can step in and provide an oasis of calm and relaxation." Cracknell argues that the research could lead to applications in the real world — increased use in hospitals and other environments where therapy and counseling occur. This could be through the use of an actual tank of fish or even just a video screen displaying a link.
We've already seen just how incredible some of our best aquariums can be — whether it's the out-of-this-world animals at the Georgia Aquarium or the multitudinous displays at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Wherever your nearest aquarium happens to be, helping your health by looking at such beauty sounds to us like a win-win. For some instant health benefits, check out the National Aquarium's Live Shark Cam. Don't say we never do anything for you.