Now I know why I like to fish.
I’ve known for decades that I like to fish, but I never really thought about why the pastime gives me and millions of other people such pleasure. Now, thanks to some neuroscientists at the Harvard Medical School, I have a better idea.
According to a recent article in On the Brain, newsletter of the Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute, it has to do with something called “the relaxation response.”
A chap named Herbert Benson described the response more than 40 years ago, in 1975. Benson, now the Mind Body Medicine Professor of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School, defined it as a “purposeful initiation of a physical state of deep rest, one that changes a person’s physical and emotional responses to stress.”
The article cited a 2009 study by researchers from the University of Maine, the University of Utah, and the Veteran’s Administration in Salt Lake City. The study involved combat veterans who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and it found that vets showed “significant reductions in stress and [PTSD] symptoms, and improvements in sleep quality, after participating in a fly-fishing retreat.”
That study explains the popularity of groups such as Project Healing Waters, a nationwide organization that sets up no-cost fishing retreats for veterans; and Casting for Recovery, an organization that does the same for breast-cancer sufferers and survivors.
I’ve interviewed participants in the Project Healing Waters program, and they’re happy to talk about the difference the program has made in their lives.
“It’s given me a new lease on life,” said a Vietnam vet I met at a fly-tying get-together. “I had been going to the vet center, getting counseling for PTSD and trying to learn coping skills, but I still used to ‘isolate’ too much. Then Project Healing Waters got me started in fly fishing. I’m not as isolated, and I’m able to enjoy myself a lot more.”
“I can’t wait until the nights we meet,” said another vet. “We talk about the things we’re going to do, places we’re going to fish. We don’t talk about things that happened to us 10 or 20 or 40 years ago. We drink coffee, talk about fishing and focus on the future.”
Harvard’s Dr. Benson said fishing has a special ability to get people’s minds off their problems.
“What better example of this than fly-fishing, with the repetitive back-and-forth motion of the rod and line and fly?” he asked. “You’re focusing on where that fly is going to land on the water, and that breaks the train of everyday thought.”
Small wonder, then, that Project Healing Waters and Casting for Recovery both center on fly fishing. The metronomic motion of fly casting becomes an end unto itself, whether the fish are biting or not. As author Norman Maclean described in his classic novella, A River Runs Through It, “It is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock.”
As a fly fisherman for more than 40 years, I can attest to that. I’m convinced, however, that any sort of fishing can help bring about the relaxation response the neuroscientists so value.
I like fishing, to quote author John Voelker, “...because mercifully there are no telephones on trout waters ... and, finally, not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important, but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant — and not nearly so much fun.”