This Is Your Brain on the Ocean
About two-thirds of the body is made of what is essentially seawater. But our relationship to the deep, believes biologist Wallace J. Nichols, may be more than chemical: Our minds are also linked to the ocean, he says, in some surprising -- even game-changing -- ways.
Nichols’ passion for the marine environment has made him one of the world’s most inspirational speakers on ocean conservation. In June, he organized the first Blue Mind Summit: a revolutionary new approach to studying -- and energizing -- the complex relationship between humans and the sea. The idea behind Blue Mind is simple: If the ocean has a direct, neurological impact on our brains, an awareness of this connection will change the way we treat it. The implications of this premise are profound; they may, Nichols believes, revolutionize the way we teach conservation and ecology.
"J.," as he prefers to be called, is a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and founder/co-director of Ocean Revolution, an international network of young ocean advocates. He earned a PhD in wildlife ecology and evolutionary biology from University of Arizona for his work with Mexico’s endangered black sea turtle, and has authored more than 50 scientific papers. A resident of Davenport, California -- where he lives with his wife and two daughters -- J. juggles a daunting speaking and research schedule, traveling around the globe to promote his humanistic view of conservation.
He spoke to OnEarth shortly after the inaugural Blue Mind Summit. He had just learned that 2010 turned out to be the best nesting season in nearly three decades for the endangered black turtle. The recovery owes much to grass-roots community organizing, building personal relationships, "and perhaps even 'love,'" mused J., "as radical as it may seem."
What do you mean by the term "Blue Mind?"
When we think of the ocean -- or hear the ocean, or see the ocean, or get in the ocean, even taste and smell the ocean, or all of those things at once -- we feel something different than before that happened. For most people, it's generally good. It often makes us more open or contemplative. For many people, it reduces stress. And that's "Blue Mind."
How did you come to link this concept with neuroscience?
During my early years of sea turtle research in northwestern Mexico, I was involved not only in science and tracking, but also in conservation. This required building grassroots networks of fishermen and finding out who among them was hunting sea turtles, and how much the turtles were worth. My interest was in measuring, tagging and releasing the turtles; theirs was in taking them home and eating or selling them. But even though I was working with turtle poachers, I found I could engage them on an emotional level. There was a shared appreciation of their beauty.
I couldn't, however, find a way to raise that issue with my academic colleagues. There was no language that allowed for serious discussion about the emotions of people doing illegal activities. It was all about economics and how we could pay people to not take turtles.
That’s when I decided to start looking at how the ocean makes us feel: not through poetry or music or art, but through cognitive neuroscience. In the early ’90s I started reading the work of Antonio Damasio, who studies the neuroscience of emotion. New brain imaging techniques have opened the door to talk about empathy, happiness and compassion in a scientific way.
How did the summit come about?
The ocean is the biggest feature of our planet, but when I asked neuroscientists about research on this topic, well, there wasn’t any. That struck me as a huge oversight. So I decided to invite a group of neuroscientists, ocean folks, journalists and artists to start a conversation about the science of our emotional connection with the sea.
How does the ocean affect the brain?
Sound, for example, affects our brain and influences our emotions. If I ask you to close your eyes and turn on a recording of the ocean, I can change your mood immediately. There’s a huge body of research on the science of music and the brain, but almost nothing on the sound of the ocean and the brain. That’s probably going to be the first study that comes out of the Blue Mind Summit, because you can transport it pretty easily into the laboratory.
Do we have a sense of why listening to the ocean actually affects our brains?
There’s a growing body of research on nostalgia, music and memory looking at which songs give you chills, a measurable physiological response. It turns out that in your teens -- between ages 16 and 21 -- you are most likely to put down many of these nostalgic memories. So, I’m hypothesizing, if you spend important time near the ocean during your teenage years, those sounds become part of your soundtrack. They’re the sounds you become most nostalgic about for the rest of your life.
But what about people who grow up in landlocked places like Kansas, Hungary or even Nepal? Clearly, they’re not as impacted by the ocean. How does this research relate to their lives?
We’re not sure, but I think that these studies can impact the way we handle environmental education anywhere. If we take kids of that age group outside and connect them with rivers, with trees, with animals, with mountains, with the ocean, they will form strong ties to nature.
So you’re suggesting that we "wire" a conservation ethic into them.
Basically. The idea is, how can we use what we learn about the brain as a tool for building empathy? But it’s critical to do it in a transparent way, so it’s not creepy, like mind control. Instead, it’s actually empowering, because it teaches you how your brain works. I tell my kids: "Because your brain works this way, we’re going to spend some time by the ocean. Hopefully, you’ll fall in love with it!"
At the conference, Eric Johnson from Sotheby’s Realty commented that the phrase "ocean view" is the most valuable phrase in the English language.
That’s right. Let’s consider real estate in San Francisco: two penthouse apartments, same building, same layout. One faces the city, one faces the water. The one that faces the water recently sold for half a million dollars more. If we extrapolate that to all the real estate in San Francisco, or the U.S., we’re talking about a trillion dollar premium, thanks to the ocean. It’s a premium added to your restaurant, hotel room or a cup of coffee -- because it comes with an ocean view. And the ocean gets none of that value!
So what are some of the most important questions raised by the Blue Mind Summit?
How do we make the relevance of the ocean understood to more people? One idea might be to have a grad student calculate the "ocean-view premium" in a bulletproof way and put that number, or range of numbers, out there. That’s the kind of information that you can take into a policy discussion.
There’s also the question of figuring out how the ocean reduces stress because we know that stress causes disease. Now we’re talking public health: coastal access as a public health issue. If you can show that a walk on the beach is as good as x-y-z pill for reducing stress, that’s an argument for protecting open space and access to it.
Let’s project into the future. How long do we have to "change our minds" about the ocean?
Research is saying 90 percent of the big animals in the ocean are gone. So on one level it’s too late. Half of leatherback sea turtles now have plastic in their bodies. All of the beaches I’ve been to in the past decade have micro-plastic in the sand. A lot of fisheries have crashed or are in decline. Ocean acidification is a growing problem. So we’re in crisis now. The response that should have happened 20 years ago didn’t. And the response that should be happening now isn’t happening either.
But the ocean’s resilient, and we’re resilient. The plasticity of the human brain gives me hope. I’ve seen what marketers have been able to convince us to buy -- and I think clever marketers could convince us to do good stuff, too.
So you're trying to be a clever marketer.
Yes, but there’s a difference between neuro-marketing and neuro-conservation. Neuro-marketing hides the "neuro" portion of it; good neuro-marketers are invisible. You don't know they're manipulating your brain, your emotions. I’m not saying this is a silver-bullet answer to our problems, but neuro-conservation, as I define it, tells you about your brain. "Look what happens to your brain on the ocean. Doesn't that feel good?" It builds fascination and self-awareness -- and, ideally, changes behavior.