Updated: Jun 6
We’ve all seen the aquarium in the dentists’ or doctors’ office. We know the aquariums are there to help reduce stress. It makes sense. We’ve all probably experienced a calming effect from viewing an aquarium at some point. However, is there actually any real evidence, any solid data that shows aquariums really do reduce stress, lower blood pressure, calm us psychologically, and restore us physiologically?
In this post, I will outline several studies that have attempted, through experimentation, to determine the actual, measurable effect aquariums have on stress reduction. Then, I’ll explain what you can do to achieve those effects in your home or office.
Why do We Like Aquariums?
Humans have always been attracted to natural environments. There are three prevalent theories as to why.
The Biophilia Hypothesis suggests humans are attracted to living organisms due to a genetic affinity for responding positively to healthy and successful environments. These types of environments are associated with higher levels of activity and life. (Wilson 1993)
The Psychophysiological Stress Recovery Theory suggests that a calm and safe environment promotes an automatic evolutionary response in humans that produces a calming effect after a stressful situation. The safety associated with these calm environments triggers a recovery period that reduces stress. (Ulrich et. al. 1991)
The Attention Restoration Theory suggests restorative settings, such as an aquarium, can restore mental fatigue brought on by intense focus. Restorative settings are defined as holding fascination, being exotic, extensive and rich, and having compatibility with the viewer's expectations. (Herzog, Maguire & Nebel 2003).
The home, office, or public aquarium, when setup correctly, replicates a natural, calm, restorative environment with living organisms. Since humans are naturally inclined to find these settings calming, recreating them in our homes and offices provides stress reduction by being physiologically restorative, and psychologically calming.
How do Aquariums Reduce Stress?
How do aquariums then actually reduce stress? What happens to us when we view a peaceful aquarium?
One way aquariums reduce stress and restore us physiologically is by lowering our blood pressure. The ability of aquariums to reduce blood pressure has been investigated several times over the years. One of the most convincing studies defined three groups of elderly participants. The experimental group lived with an aquarium. The two control groups lived with no aquariums. The first, experimental group, experienced a significant decrease in diastolic blood pressure compared to the other two control groups (Riddick 1985).
Aquariums Help With Memory and Focus
Aquariums have also been shown to benefit Alzheimer’s patients with attention and focus. In a study, patients with Alzheimer's who would pace or wander were more focused on the aquarium while lethargic patients were more alert. Both types of patients experienced a significant increase in food intake, a decrease in nutritional supplementation, and weight gain (Edwards & Beck 2002).
Another way aquariums reduce stress is by holding our fascination with a varied array of life. A recent study conducted by Cracknell et. al., 2015, in the Journal of Environment and Behavior, showed that aquatic environments with increasing levels of biodiversity, held the viewers attention longer, lowered participants' heart rates, and decreased their blood pressure. This study suggests that on top of having an aquarium in your home or office, it should also be well cared for and properly maintained to allow for maximum biodiversity to most effectively reduce stress through physiological restoration and psychological calming.
Therefore, to get the most out of the calming and restorative properties of an aquarium you should try to accomplish three things; (1) biodiversity, (2) proper maintenance, (3), and beauty.
As the Cracknell et. al. 2015 study suggests, higher biodiversity is associated with a more effective calming experience. Additionally, the three prevalent theories on why humans are attracted to natural systems suggests that our affinity relies on the environment we are observing to feel safe, calm, and beautiful. In order to achieve this, the aquarium must be properly maintained.
Without appropriate maintenance, the closed ecosystem created won’t be able to handle the elevated bioload required to support higher biodiversity. The tank will also appear dirty, or full of overgrowth, algae, or pests.
I think it’s pretty clear your family or patients will benefit from the restorative and calming effects of a properly maintained aquarium. Now all you have to do is decide what type of aquarium you want, and that’s the fun part.
If your interested in a saltwater aquarium, check out his article.
Edwards, N. E., & Beck, A. M. (2002). Animal-assisted therapy and nutrition in Alzheimer’s disease. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 24, 697-712.
Cracknell D, White MP, Pahl S, Nichols WJ, Depledge MH. Marine Biota and Psychological Well-Being: A Preliminary Examination of Dose–Response Effects in an Aquarium Setting. Environment and Behavior. 2016;48(10):1242-1269.
Herzog, T. R., Maguire, C. P., & Nebel, M. B. (2003). Assessing the restorative components of environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23, 159-170.
Riddick, C. C. (1985). Health, aquariums, and the non-institutionalized elderly [Special issue: Pets and the family]. Marriage & Family Review, 8, 163-173.
Ulrich, R. S., Simons, R. F., Losito, B. D., Fiorito, E., Miles, M. A., & Zelson, M. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 11, 201-230.
Wilson, E. O. (1993). Biophilia and the conservation ethic. In S. Kellert & E. O. Wilson (Eds.), The biophilia hypothesis (pp. 31-41). Washington, DC: Island Press.
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