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by Maria Grusauskas (photo: Daniel Fox)
The best two sleeps of my life each followed entire days spent in the ocean, after boogie boarding as a child, and learning to surf as an adult. Santa Cruz, you know this: even just standing by the ocean can relax us. But how, exactly, does the ocean affect the human brain?
This question trickles through the life’s work of Davenport-based marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, Ph.D, who’s coined a concept and research project called Blue Mind, an inquiry into the mysteries of the brain-ocean link.
In a way that makes me suspect he has a pair of gills hiding behind his ears, Nichols talks about the sensory components of the ocean, from the briny smell of the kelp and algae, to the negative-ion rich salt spray, the rhythm of the waves, and the soothing flat green or dark blue line of the horizon.
“What happens is your brain goes into a different mode, and something that’s called a default mode network is activated,” says Nichols.
In that state, says Nichols, we become self-referential and introspective. And as the capabilities of neuroscience bloom, studies are beginning to shed light on the Blue Mind inquiry—which 10 years ago was met with eye rolls and skepticism.
“You have this conversation now, and you have a neuroscientist from Stanford or USF with you, and now you’re talking about neurons and dopamine and oxytocin and serotonin, and it’s a very different conversation than it was not long ago,” says Nichols.
Teeming with neurotransmitters we are still just beginning to understand, the brain is equipped with its own pharmacy, says Nichols. He believes linking neuroscience with nature will result in insights that could seep into the realms of public health and education as we know it—perhaps even reducing our dependence on medications.
Ocean therapy is at the heart of Operation Surf, for instance, an organization that brings active-duty military who have lost one or more limbs to surf in Santa Cruz waters.
“One guy had one arm and no legs,” says Nichols. “So they’re very disciplined, but surfing is new. And they’re getting used to life with missing appendages. And getting in the water is just this great healing experience, and then, many of them report the best sleep they’ve had since their injury. That’s interesting. What’s going on, and how do we help more people?”
Currently, the Pentagon isn’t interested in pursuing this line of therapy, says Nichols—it sounds too far out, and they’d rather give them drugs for their stress and their sleeplessness.
Mathew White, a psychologist at the University of Plymouth, UK, has been studying the neurocognitive effects of water and “blue space” since 2010—identifying restorative powers associated with water, and calmness linked to subaquatic scenes. He is also looking at the health benefits of living near the coast.
“Think of all the people, just in Santa Cruz, who go each week, in one way or another, to the water to reduce their stress,” says Nichols. “Whether they’re jogging along the coast, or surfing, or just sitting on a bench and looking at it...Now imagine if we put it all back in the community. Pulled it up out of the ocean, took it, put it back in everybody’s bodies.”
What would Santa Cruz look like then? Could self-esteem, better sleep, reduced stress and overall health be as simple as plunging into a body of water? As the neuroscientists sink their teeth into this question, we might as well explore it for ourselves.
Advises Nichols: “Find some water, and get in it.”
To find out more about Blue Mind and upcoming conferences, visit www.wallacejnichols.org.
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