New York Times bestselling author Wallace J. Nichols joined Tim Beatley and the rest of the Biophilic Cities team to talk about the power of water and his new book, Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected and Better at What You Do.
For more information about Blue Mind, please visit http://www.wallacejnichols.org/122/blue-mind.html.
The Biophilic Cities Project views water as a key dimension of the human-nature relationship. How did you find your way to the power of water and Blue Mind?
On a personal level, I had water experiences as a kid. I loved being in, on and under water, including swimming pools, lakes, rivers, and oceans. As I got older, that love only grew stronger. I decided that I wanted to become a marine biologist and I decided that I was interested in not just nature, but in helping solve problems. I received an undergraduate degree in Spanish and Biology, a masters degree in Economics and Policy and a Ph.D. in Ecology and Wildlife Biology. Through that process, it seemed like this huge thing was missing, which was the reason that we were doing what we were doing in the first place: the emotional connection to nature. We weren’t encouraged to talk about it publicly or professionally. It was quite clear that speaking about the emotional connection to nature was off limits, yet it was the reason why we were in the room to begin with. I wondered “Why is this emotional connection piece disallowed when it is the reason we are here in our professions and why we are fighting for what we are fighting for?” My most successful work as a biologist with sea turtles was based on that emotional connection. From working with turtle hunters that are now turtle protectors to working with tourists to working with scientists, it is all based in that emotional connection that we aren’t supposed to talk about.
In Antonio Damasio’s book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, he states that all decisions have an emotional component. His book changed the way I thought about how we do things. You cannot make a decision without employing your emotional tools. You will spin around in rationality forever. The act of deciding and just going from thinking to acting involves emotion. Biologically that’s how we work. The more I thought about it the more that I felt that science and emotion needed to meet more, particularly around the theme of water.
When you realized that you needed to write a book exploring these two realms, was there enough research to write a book? What is the state of our knowledge then and now?
At the beginning of the process, we were collecting dots and connecting them. There have been studies of “brain on music” and “brain on rhythm”, but not the “brain on the rhythm of the oceans”. The groups of people working on those issues haven’t thought about the sound of water, so they were brought into the conversation. They were asked to speculate, “What may be going on based on what you know?” Petr Janata at the University of California Davis who studies the science of groove has studied people when they are listening to music, but not the ocean, for example. For that group of scientists, it is different. The ocean is considered simple white noise.
Each year more of these dots were connected, more questions posed, and as a result there are shorter lines connecting them. Now there is a lot of research being done at the University of Exeter with Michael DePledge, Mat White and others. That’s the way science happens. That’s the process that builds our knowledge of something. There are still lots of dots, unanswered questions and connections being made. This year we got into this conversation about the science of awe and how that may relate to water. That was the question presented to Paul Piff at the University of California Irvine, who studies awe. He said that he hadn’t thought of his work through a water lens, but would like to.
There is also published research to be mined. You can look back on studies on open space and green space, and you will find that there was also a water component. When we go back and look, you can find some water-based effects. We are in the early stages of asking and answering those questions. Five years ago we were in a pre-stage of asking the questions and connecting the dots. In five years, there will be people who are experts in this area. It’s moving that quickly.
Do we know enough to disentangle all of the components of nature to determine what is having that effect?
No, there is so much complexity. If you say you are going to go out on a boat and watch whales, it seems like a simple activity. The complexity of this simple activity is enormous. So what do neuroscientists do, how do they simplify it? What is the proxy for whale watching that I can bring into a lab? There are many problems with that. It’s very limited. They can bring red wine into an fMRI, and run red wine through a tube into your mouth and ask questions. That is still quite different from what you might experience sitting around a table with friends drinking a glass of red wine. So what water elements can you bring into the lab? You can bring sounds, smells, and images of the ocean. You can put all of those things together and it still will never be the ocean. If you do those things and then combine that with self-reporting, physiology measures in the field, mobile EEG, and cortisol levels, then you can start putting all of those pieces together and you can get insights into body and brain on nature. It is time consuming and expensive, but it is happening.
When I think about the work around post-traumatic stress disorder, we see that surfing and kayaking seem to work for some people. You then have the Pentagon and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and perhaps you want to talk to them about it and convince them to invest in surf kayak therapies for our veterans. How do we convince them?
The goal is not only to publish research, but to help people protect nature. What is the level of scientific rigor that they are demanding? What will open the door and their wallets to restoration and protection? Are we able to provide all of answers to their questions? The answer is ‘not really, yet.’
What is it about water that makes it so powerful? Why are we drawn to it? Why should we think about water?
When you look up “what is the value of a river or ocean,” the reports that you read about that subject, often referred to as the Blue Economy, will focus on jobs, seafood, oxygen, and new pharmaceuticals. Those are often listed as the top four. That is usually where it stops. The ocean has been reduced to a handful of market benefits. What is not included in that list, which has resulted in the mass undervaluing of water, are the cognitive, emotional, psychological and social benefits. We have all experienced those throughout our lives. Because we don’t have the hard science to confirm and measure, they aren’t included. So what are those other benefits? I would encourage adding cognitive and social benefits to the list. It is a clunky way of speaking about something so personal, but that is what we do when speaking to policymakers.
Is it possible to create blue mind conditions in urban environments?
I think it is possible and crucial. I think that “urban blue” often gets left out of the conversation, it’s not discussed. There are hundreds of miles of coast that are public, much of it urban. Kids in California have no idea that they can go there anytime and achieve solitude, privacy, relaxation, romance, fun, form lasting memories, and yet no one is telling them about it. We do take a lot of kids to the oceans on science field trips. Along the way, what if we told them that there is much more to the science behind the oceans? Their feelings are what they’ll remember and cherish most. And they should learn that they can return again and again, as long as the waters accessible and healthy. We need kids to value all of the benefits of blue and green space.
About Wallace J. Nichols:
Dr. Wallace “J.” Nichols is a scientist, wild water advocate, movement-maker, New York Times bestselling author, and dad. His research and expeditions have taken him to coasts and waterways across North, Central and South America, to Asia, Africa, Australia, and Europe. This 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.
To view J. Nichols’ lecture on “Blue Mind”, see video below.
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