Your Brain on Water
An area scientist takes a psychological approach to advocate for the ocean.
Thursday, December 6, 2012
Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols is embarking on a new journey into the science of the sea. The path he’s taking: our brains.
His Blue Mind project is an in-depth study of how the brain responds to the presence of the ocean.
“There is pretty ample evidence in human history that shows that people are emotionally moved by the ocean, so I wanted to explore that scientifically,” says Nichols, who lives in Davenport and works as a California Academy of Sciences research associate. He’s also a board member for Santa Cruz-based Save Our Shores and a consultant for several local marine-science institutions.
“Neuroscientists have studied your brain on red wine, on chocolate, on iPhones, on music,” he says, “but there aren’t many studies of your brain on water.”
Nichols is most known for tracking the journey of a loggerhead sea turtle via satellite across the Pacific Ocean in 1996 – before scientific institutions like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station began tracking the paths of far-ranging sea creatures.
“There were loggerhead turtles hanging around the Baja Coast, and we didn’t know where they were coming from,” he says. “We had received evidence based on fisher tags that they might be coming from Japan, so we decided to track the turtle and broadcast its journey online in real time.”
Now, his ground-breaking venture is an exploration of how our minds react to the ocean. “Why are people willing to pay 40 to 300 percent extra on a water view in real estate, or even for table at a restaurant?” he asks. “I want to know why looking out at the water feels different than looking out at a parking lot.”
While most people can attest that bodies of water like the Pacific Ocean are soothing, Nichols wants harder evidence that water relaxes our minds and reduces stress. “I’m working with a group called Heroes on the Water, and they take veterans kayak fishing,” he says. “They use that as a kind of [post-traumatic stress disorder] therapy, and it has been working really well.”
His early findings reveal the color blue has an effect on our brains, too. “We have found that it doubles creativity,” he says. “So with the presence of water, you got this combination of feeling more relaxed, creative and more connected to the self.
“We live in a constant state of stress with information – good news, bad news, honking horns, sirens, deadlines,” he adds. “Stress is the number-one killer in society, and we’re looking for ways to reduce that with the ocean. Water, not medications.”
Every June since 2011, Nichols has put on a Blue Mind Summit – first in San Francisco, then Outer Banks, N.C. and next in Boston – bringing under 100 people, about half of them neuroscientists, psychologists and ocean scientists, together to discuss the theory.
“He’s trying to bring together two communities that haven’t spoken to each other that can definitely learn from each other,” Blue Mind Summit Coordinator Jake Dunagan says. “He’s capitalizing on a conversation that will very much enlighten those who work in ocean sciences and on the brain.”
One of the main goals of his project is to make people more aware of their own neurology. That has also been his biggest challenge.
“Neuroscience is a very technical and intellectually challenging field,” he says. “We want to present our idea in a way that’s understandable, but at the same time not oversimplify to the point where it’s incorrect.”
One approach: to educate people on the brain-study strategies behind advertising, which he believes is a cause of stress. “Marketers use neuroscience to sell people things they don’t need,” he says. “We should use neuroscience to solve bigger problems. If children learn how brains work, they can understand marketing and choose for themselves.”
Another goal of the project is to encourage greater appreciation for a healthy ocean.
“Our intentions are to develop a field called neuro-conservation, taking what we learned from neuroscience to biodiversity conservation,” he says.
He sees a depth of possibilities in both elements that can translate to potentially prodigious gains.
“The human brain is the most powerful organ,” he says. “I’d like to think that deep ocean exploration of the future is not at the bottom of the sea – it’s in our minds.”