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Pool of thought.

By Doyle McManus,Thinker

There is no drug - recreational or prescription - capable of inducing the tranquil euphoria brought on by swimming. I do all my best thinking in the pool, whether I'm trying to figure out how to treat a patient's complicated ailment or write a paper. Why that is is mysterious, but I have a theory.

Assuming you have some basic stroke proficiency, your attention is freed from the outside world. You just have to dimly sense the approaching wall before you flip turn and go on your way. Cut off from sound, you are mostly aware of your breathing. You have to traverse boredom before you can get to a state of mental flow. Now your mind is free to revel in nonlinear, associative thought. Nothing has to make sense. You suddenly become aware that time has passed. You are not sure what elapsed in that strange discontinuity, but the solution to a problem that escaped you on land is perfectly obvious emerging from the water - a rapturous experience.

I could flood you with facts about the physiology of swimming in an attempt to convince you of its cognitive benefits. Some point to endorphins - but the idea that exertion causes endorphin levels to rise in the brain seems to be a myth. Perhaps swimming improves brain function by increasing blood flow? Sure, that's true. It also raises the level of BDNF, a protein that promotes neurogenesis, especially in the hippocampus, which supports memory. But so does nearly every form of exercise that speeds up your heart rate.

And yet, immersion in water up to the level of the heart has been shown to increase blood flow to one of the brain's major arteries by 14 per cent over that which you'd expect on land. So perhaps there is something special about swimming that is distinct from exercise on land.

Some of my psychoanalytically-oriented colleagues have joked that swimming promotes an emotional regression - back to "swimming" in utero. I love the notion, but considering that the brain regions central to encoding long-term memory don't develop sufficiently until around age 1, it's unlikely.

My love of swimming is as emotional as it is intellectual. My father, who was a great swimmer, taught me to swim when I was very young. We swam together in every conceivable body of water for years, so swimming is inextricably bound to my relationship with my father, who was an engineer and a deeply curious person.

Though we never discussed it, I suspect that he, too, swam not just for health, but to think. He would return from a long swim and disappear into his office, emerging hours later excited about an insight into a new technology or instrument.

A few years back, my husband and I celebrated on our honeymoon by swimming from Europe to Asia across the Dardanelles - the Hellespont of Greek myth. It was about a two-and-a-half mile swim in some of the most beautiful cool azure water, so I had plenty of time to think.

Halfway across, I looked up and could see the coast of Canakkale, Turkey, in the distance, and realised I had 40 minutes or so more to finish. I found myself thinking of my father, as I often do in the water, and pictured his powerful, graceful stroke. Next thing I knew, I had reached land.

Richard A. Friedman is a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College.

- Doyle McManus - Leonid Bershidsky - As'ad Abdul Rahman

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:Jul 18, 2016
Words:604
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