Why do we feel so calm near water? Marine biologist and best-selling author J. Wallace Nichols has some surprising answers that connect nature, neuroscience, collaboration and emotional intelligence.
“In this profound study, biologist and researcher Nichols shares the many ways in which water positively impacts not just our lives, but also our minds.”
– Publishers Weekly
“Blue Mind” is a fascinating study of the emotional, behavioral, psychological and physical connections that keep humans so enchanted with water. Nichols examines seas and oceans, lakes and rivers, even swimming pools and the contents of our bathtubs in a study that is both highly readable and rooted in real research.
~ Washington Post
Blue Mind is an inquiry about how water effects our minds, providing deeper insights and new questions about the neuroscience of “our brains on water.” We expand the “ecosystem services” conversation to include the vast array of cognitive and emotional services, values, and benefits offered by clean, healthy waterways.
Dr. Wallace “J.” Nichols is a scientist, wild water advocate, movement-maker, New York Times bestselling author, and dad.
In 2015, J. shared his research in a webinar for Six Seconds “Vitality” conference where he spent an hour telling stories about his work.
To watch/listen to the webinar, including fabulous photos of his work with marine mammals and ocean conservation go here: http://connectpro16008449.adobeconnect.com/p4nde4pari2/
Here is a partial transcript of the webinar/talk:
I find myself in an unusual position of being a marine biologist at an emotional intelligence conference, but in a way it’s not because the oceans effect our emotions.
The website at Six Seconds has as its opening image a man looking out over a vast body of water. And I find that interesting that it’s front and center. What is it about water that makes us feel that good? Why is an image of a man celebrating his emotions and his relationship to that body of water, why is that the image chosen to represent Six Seconds?
We live on a water planet. Fresh and salt. Seen from a million miles away we look like a blue marble. It’s the most reproduced photograph of all time. I think that’s because we love our water planet and that’s why we share that image.
I will start out with a question for you: What’s your water?
Your water may be tap water, it may be nearest your house, it might be the waterway you fell in love with as a child. You can consider it metaphorically. For some of us it’s being in the water, a drink of fresh water can be an emotional experience. I remember the emotion of finally drinking at a fountain as a kid when I was really thirsty. It could be a time on a boat looking at dolphins, surfing, or on a constructed pier or a facility. These type of places hold the memories of many generations of people who enjoyed the seaside. For others it might be a rooftop pool in Singapore on a skyscraper.
For me it was a time from my childhood with my dad in the ocean. You can see by the look on our faces, we were having a good time. We never wanted to get out of the water. Later in life, spending time in the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming with my family, swimming in a lake, jumping in in the morning, smelling the mountain air, hearing the sound of wolves at night.
I think back on this moment. It felt like the best version of myself at that moment. I remember thinking that. I was really into turtles. We used to catch snapping turtles and mark them with numbers and release them into the Chesapeake Bay and see which ones came back. It led to my being a marine biologist and helping rebuild sea turtle populations. We’ve had some really good successes in bringing turtles back from the brink.
The key has been working with people. Making a personal and emotional connection with your people to protect turtles. One of those people is Chuy Lucero, a fisherman in Baja, Mexico. He grew up hunting sea turtles and he now he is the leading conservationist now protecting sea turtles. The key is working together. The art of collaboration. At the core of that is emotional intelligence. We didn’t learn that in marine biology school. We learned about animals, but we didn’t learn about people. At the university, I looked around to see which scientists were learning about the human brain, about emotion.
It led me on a journey to the sociology and neuroscience department. Conversations there led to some interesting collaborations. We used to think of the human brain as a black box, we couldn’t see inside. Now we can look inside and measure its responses as we’re relating to nature, to people, to music.
We can look inside and ask a whole new sets o questions. It’s leading to an explosion in the various different fields. So many fields are intersecting with neuroscience. But what you won’t see on there is nature. It’s a relative newcomer. Our brain on water is the most newcomer to this conversation. What I was looking for was a book about our brain on water. It wasn’t in the library. So I tried to convince some colleagues to write the book, and then I wrote it myself.
How might we use this knowledge to live better? How can we use this knowledge to fix what’s broken on this water planet that we live on?
Economic Discussions about the Value of Water:
Jobs, Food, Energy, Hydration, Oxygen, Biodiversity, Resilience:
This is the conversation we hear when we talk about the economy and ecosystem services related to our healthy planet. What do you think is missing from this list? What else do we get from healthy oceans, rivers, lakes, ponds, waterways, what other services or benefits if you will that are provided by healthy waterways?
The Bluemind List:
I summarize these as the cognitive, psychological and social benefits. It’s not easily reduced to our economics. That’s the bluemind conversation.
When we reduce our understanding of our waterways to the original list, we undervalue our waterways. We’re bringing the science to bear on the less tangible aspect. Places like Pittsburgh are turning their rivers into places to honor instead of dumping places. They’re holding weddings, kayaking, walking, etc. There are places around the world that are celebrating the life of the river.
In ecology there is research going on. We’re learning about a trophic cascade of interactions that happen when you bring back a top predator. Those predators influence their prey, and they influence the plants and the health of the river, etc. There are also neurologic cascades.
Once oceans are healthy, people come and snorkel and scuba dive, they fall in love with the reef, and they change their behavior. Maybe it connects a mother and child on a rafting trip, and they remember that and it bonds them together.
Neuroconservation: Redmind v.s. Bluemind
What I propose is a field called Neuroconservation; where biology and conservation connect. We expand the conversation so that our conversations are not just economic, but are about medicine. Water is in fact about medicine. These places provide a range of medical services. It’s an exciting time to be in this conversation.
We know we live in an increasingly chaotic life. Our phones are on all the time. Some people wake up and go to sleep to the sounds of their phone. Some people go to a restaurant and there are multiple screens and there is noise. I call that red mind. It’s a state of stimulation. It helps us get across the finish line. It helps us save our selves in some cases.
But when we live in redmind all the time, we start to get sick. Our body, our mind, our DNA doesn’t work as well when we’re in a state of constant psychological stress. You need to be sure to take many times away from the stress. I have found that the best way to do that is to spend time on our waterways. This has gone on a long time. We’ve always known that waterways are places of healing.
The Arts, Inspiration and Water
Pablo Neruda; “Necessita el mar porque me ensena.” I need water to teach me.”
The idea that our happiness is connected to water has been around a long time. When we walked the length of California’s coast, we saw a house that was worth 6 million on the beach. Waterfront homes in California and other coastal communities are worth double the cost of other homes. Why are people willing to spend 1000 times more to live near the water? This isn’t just a question of living near the ocean. It’s the case with rivers, even constructed spaces. We know this, because we understand that water is medicine. But we’ve departed from it. We’ve started to think of water as a commodity. To be polluted or bought and sold. We’ve forgotten that it is live.
Oliver Sachs, one of the great neurobiologists of all time. He swam because he got his best ideas in the water. He kept a waterproof notebook with him, so he could write down ideas as they came to him.
Operation surf is a program that gets veterans out on the water for a week. My friend Martin fell in love with the water and became a surfer, even though he had lost two and a half limbs in Afghanistan. He is now an ambassador for the ocean. I love surfing with him and hanging out with him. His nickname is 1LS, for one- limbed surfer.
So, this good feeling that we get from healthy waterways, all rests on access. If we can’t get to the water, we’re not going to have the emotional improvement that water brings us. It can come from privatization, people locking the public out. Here in California, we have laws that prevent this, but we’re constantly having to protect against privatization. Access can be limited by mobility. Jermilla was in a wheelchair and hadn’t walked in years from her Alzheimer’s. When she got in her wheelchair finally to the ocean, she stood up for the first time. She said up until this time I hadn’t had a reason to stand.
You maybe able to get to the river, but find it polluted with plastic or oil, etc. There are parts of the world where women are not permitted to go in the water, prevented from putting on a swimsuit or wetsuit because rules prevent them from it. There are groups working to change the rules.
Another barrier to experiencing water fully is our own technology. We may have physical access. We might find the water is clean and healthy, we may have permission, but if we’re stuck in our technology, we might not even notice how good it is. They’re afraid to leave their smart phone, and they remain tethered to their apps. I prefer to see a baby turtle in people’s hands, and see them guide the turtle to the ocean. Much more impressive than a smart phone.
What is it we get? We get a feeling of awe. The science of awe is an amazing field of study. We’re learning that awe is awe is an amazing part of being human. Being completely blown away by the grandeur and the beauty.
Awe changes us from a “me”to a”we” perspective
UC Berkeley is doing some incredible research on this. What does it mean to have an awe-free life? We are conducting an experimented on a global level and we’re finding out what that might be. We know we need awe in our lives. The next time you’re going to experience awe, grab a young person, a neighbor, etc. That shift from the me, to the we, is one of compassion and empathy. It helps to build trust.
Solitude is important to creativity. Solitude near the ocean keeps your brain mildly stimulated, but not distracted. In a recent MIT study, students could not be alone for 15 minutes. They were given a wristband that shocked them in an unpleasant way. They said they never wanted to feel it again. But in an isolated room, they were using it multiple times to alleviate boredom. I wonder what would happen if they had the sound of water?
Being by water is a place you can go to get away from noise of the world. Electronics don’t like the water. So being near, on or under the water, and you can experience high levels of solitude. Some of the most important ceremonies are connected to water. Marriages, proposals, anniversaries are by the water. People think of relaxation and vacation as needing water. As much as 60% of the modern diseases and illness are related to stress. So relaxation is medicine. Stress reduction is incredibly important. Formation of emotional memories. Those highlights of our lives, those places, people, experiences.
How are we going to make nostalgia for the next generations? Will it be apps, technology, or will they be nostalgic for waterways, food that they grew, music they made themselves? That’s where nostalgia should go.
I think back on my childhood, my falling in love with myself, my father, my siblings, the Rocky Mountains. I was afforded these experiences, and out of that decided to dedicate myself to the thing I love; the water.
It’s been a big challenge. It’s always hard but so very satisfying. The result of this set of inquiries, this massive collaboration. We want to include the healthcare field, the education field, parents, artists, architects, writers, real estate agents, travel agents, hospitality industry, people in sports and recreation, all where we want to go with this Bluemind conversation.
The goal is to take this up a notch, to the Whitehouse, and beyond. Back to the question: What is your water? Is it a lake or river, or is it more? Is it all that you bring to it; love, happiness, contentment? We’re rethinking our relationship to water. That’s the goal of Bluemind.
His research and expeditions have taken him to coasts and waterways across North, Central and South America, to Asia, Africa, Australia, and Europe where he continually finds that the emotional connection to waters of all kinds–rather than force of financial gain–is what keeps his colleagues and collaborators working hard to understand and restore our blue planet. J. is a Research Associate at California Academy of Sciences and co-founder of OceanRevolution.org, an international network of young ocean advocates, SEEtheWILD.org, a conservation travel network,GrupoTortuguero.org, an international sea turtle conservation network, and LiVBLUE.org, a global campaign to reconnect us to our water planet.
He has authored and co-authored more than 50 scientific papers and reports and his work has been broadcast on NPR, BBC, PBS, National Geographic and Animal Planet and featured in Time, Newsweek, GQ, Outside Magazine, Fast Company, Scientific American and New Scientist, among others.
Nichols earned his Bachelor’s degree in Biology and Spanish from DePauw University, an Master’s of Environmental Management in Environmental Policy and Economics from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, and his PhD in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Arizona’s School of Renewable Natural Resources where he received both a Marshall Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship. His book Blue Mind was published in summer 2014 by Little, Brown & Company and has spent many months on the NY Times bestseller list.