Dr. Nichols has helped change conversations about adoption, architecture, the arts, business, community organizing, design, education, fishing, fundraising, health care, hospice, leadership, neuroconservation, non-profits, oceans, parenting, plastic pollution, real estate, recreation, sea turtles, slow food, surfing, technology, travel, urban planning, water, and well-being for good. (Whew!)
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Laura Chartier, Instructor of English at the University of Alaska Anchorage sent along a terrific set of questions her students had about Blue Mind. I'll share my answers after each question. If you're interested to know how Laura incorporated the book in her teaching, feel free to email her directly: firstname.lastname@example.org
· What do you want to see happening to our ocean in the next 10 years? Do you believe reaching around the world with your methods of neuroconservation makes people desire to change the impact they make on this earth?
I think we all work towards reversing the negative trends in ocean health and amplifying the positive ones. My goal with Blue Mind and more broadly neuroconservation is to help people and institutions more accurately value nature. When we ignore the vast cognitive, emotional, psychological, social and spiritual benefits wild, healthy oceans and waterways provide we are saying they don’t exist or don’t matter. That’s simply untrue, inaccurate and dangerous. Most reports on the “blue economy” focus on the familiar list of ecosystem services: seafood, oxygen, jobs, etc. In ten years I hope it becomes common to include a description of the true value of water.
· Have you noticed differences in the way people approach you and your ideas towards neuroconservation, and the like, in regards to an individual’s age and generation? i.e. Do "older" scientists tend to approach your theories with more reservation than those who are younger?
Younger scientists and students who are less invested in the status quo and more interested in the riskiness of big, cool ideas are far more interested in connecting neuroscience and conservation. They see the potential for a rewarding research career combined with the opportunity to change the world for good. Every conservation department, organization, agency or team should include a neuroconservation scientist.
· Do you have a favorite ocean / area?
The best answer is my favorite ocean or waterway is the one I have handy. Right now as I write it is the ocean off of Carmel Beach around Point Lobos in California.
· Has it ever been discouraging to be met with assumptions that you're "flakey" because of your use "feel-good approach" instead of a more technical and traditional use of scientific communications?
The term “touchy-feely” has been used. Along with “new-agey”. It’s true, I’m a hugger. But I’m the least new-agey guy I know. Most people haven’t read a neuroscience journal article or taken Neuropsych 101, so this stuff can sound unfamiliar. My PhD is in Wildlife Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and my Masters degree is in Natural Resource Economics & Policy. I can say with confidence that the research being done by my colleagues in the brain sciences is much harder, more technical and cutting edge than what’s going on in the labs of ecologists. I love the idea of combining the two.
As far as being discouraged, I’ve been told on six different occasions by mentors, professors, experts and funders that the projects I was working on—from sea turtle research to open source data sharing to Blue Mind--would lead to “career suicide” and were unfundable. I tend to be attracted to new ideas and “impossible” situations.
· Have you done any studies in Alaska? If so, what did the studies pertain to? If not, do you see yourself doing so in the future?
While studying sea turtles in the eastern tropical Pacific occasionally one of our animals would get in trouble up in Alaska. I’d love to explore application of Blue Mind ideas and neuroconservation in Alaska.
· What drew you into what you study today and made you want to pursue it?
The ocean hooked me at a very young age. I realized that I felt best when near, in, on or under water and wanted a life a career that integrated that connection. As a kid I loved turtles (still do) so studying sea turtle ecology and migration was the perfect pursuit.
· What is your most studied body of water and animal?
Broadly, the Pacific Ocean although Mill Creek which runs by my house would be a close second. As far as animals, sea turtles but I’m also somewhat obsessed with mountain lions, also living in my backyard!
· I'm always curious to hear about the writing processes of successful writers like you. How do you determine what kind of writing style/technique to use in your writings? Do you have an idea of what kind of technique to use beforehand, or do you just write and see what comes out?
I spend a lot of time doing what appears from the outside to be a lot of nothing. Collecting the “dots” that will later be connected. I take notes about everything. Next comes the development of a solid, really good outline. If you get that right, things begin to fall into place nicely. My next book Go Deeper is like that. I’m in love with the outline which helps it write itself. I’ve already got a pretty good sense of the book after that too, so when I come across research and ideas or have experiences that best suit that book, I can put them into the appropriate folder. Next up is a process of connecting the dots, smoothing the flow of facts and stories and the most painful part: cutting out anything that feels redundant. That can hurt. I cut an epic, but long, sea turtle story out of Blue Mind. But I know where it will go in the third book ; )
· What inspired you to take the step to put your ideas about neuro-conservation into action? Was there some major event that took place?
I was looking for a book like Blue Mind in the library, but it wasn’t there. I wanted to read it and use the ideas. I searched out of print and other languages, but it hadn’t been written. So I tried to get someone to write it. I failed at that. At one of his book signings several years ago I mentioned the idea to Dr. Oliver Sacks, who was a life-long water lover and avid swimmer. I thought he’d be the perfect person to write Blue Mind. He said: “good idea.” Followed by: “you do it.” I guess you could say that was my big a-ha moment, an offhanded remark from a scientists/writer I admire. He’s a kind, calm guy but his brilliant words carry a lot of weight for me. The first dozen grant proposals I wrote to fund the work were unsuccessful. But I did it anyway.
· Has anyone or any organization taken up your neuroscience research?
There are several labs across the country and around the world doing neuroconservation studies of various kinds now. Some have gone back and reexamined studies they’d already conducted with new eyes and have new insights. Generally most are not directly focused on water, although the University of Exeter Medical School is the clear leader on research into “blue space” complementing a bigger literature on “green space". It’s exciting and there’s so much potential. The ideas are being put to use in many sectors such as health care, education, architecture and design, real estate and planning, travel and leisure, and sports and recreation. People working in the water sector are realizing that their business is much more than hydration, hygiene and irrigation. Of all those sectors the conservation/environment community has been slow on the uptake, but we’re working on that.
Students ask “where can I get a degree in neuroconservation?” The answer is anywhere you’re willing to pull together the pieces and expertise that already exists on most campuses.
· What has been your most inspiring project and your most disappointing project and why?
By excluding or overlooking the cognitive, emotional, psychological, social and spiritual benefits of wild waters we’ve undervalued the very basis of life on Earth. That’s disappointing but also inspiring. We will build a bigger, wider, deeper blue movement when we start talking about the true value of nature. We may not be able to measure awe, wonder, solitude and creativity in dollars but we can measure it and describe it in words. There’s no reason to leave it out. The slowness of the process of doing that, the eye-rolling and inability to adapt, can be frustrating but the breakthroughs, from schools to hospitals to urban design are wonderfully inspiring.
· Through all your travels, what place has had the most effect on you and your work and why?
I went back to Lake Superior a few months ago over thirty years after my last visit. It was literally 100 degrees colder and the lake was frozen and covered with snow. But I realized that I had left a piece of my heart in the Apostle Islands as a teen three decades prior. It was really good to be back. I met some people who work with at risk youth, taking them into the rivers and lakes. I met an Ojibwe school girl who looked me in the eyes and said "my grandmother taught me that water is life". I’m making plans to go back again in summer when the water returns to its liquid form.
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