I had Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, author and marine biologist, captive in my car for forty minutes over the course of two days. Far from kidnapping him, he was in my car willingly because I was his morning chauffeur for a local science conference about the St. Louis River (the one in Minnesota, not the one in Missouri).
Nichols was the conference keynote speaker, talking about concepts described in his book, “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, in, on, or Under Water can Make you Happier, Healthier, More Connected & Better at What you do.”
As a watery kind of person myself, I relished this opportunity to learn more about the whole Blue Mind thing. Basically, it’s this: Being by or in water can calm people down and make them more creative. This idea is nothing new, it’s just that now it has a champion in the form of a Kevin Costner-esque man with a Ph.D. And it’s a nice side benefit that this man seems very humble and down-to-earth (down-to water?).
This is my rather jumbled account of things I quizzed him about in my car, things he said at the conference, and things I recall from reading his book. I tried to separate all the information out according to when I heard him say it, but it was useless. I guess I’m too holistic for that.
Although Nichols’s ideas may seem rather surfer-dude-ish — like they come from California, which indeed is where he lives — Nichols refers to himself as a Native North American. He grew up on the East Coast, but has lived various places in the Midwest and Southwest while on his eventual way to the West Coast.
In fact, Nichols credits the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore for focusing his love of water and inspiring his career as a sea turtle biologist. He visited the area for ten days when he was in high school.
I wish I would have had time to ask him exactly what happened during his experience to inspire him, but in his speech he said his time in the Apostles led to his realization that water was, “. . . Where you feel like the best version of yourself. You are surrounded by nature, you’re in the elements. You’re where you should be.”
Something he didn’t mention in his speech was that he used to stutter as a child. I would expect that being in the water helped with that. “Just to be quiet in or near the water. To learn a new activity, learn to surf or to swim – those are very often the highlights of our childhood or adulthood,” he said.
His goal at the conference was to encourage the audience to bring science and emotion together in their work. He used a mixture of personal stories and research results to highlight how important water is to people from emotional, psychological and spiritual standpoints.
I read the Blue Mind book a few months ago. What struck me was that Nichols cited many studies, but most of them were associative – there weren’t many you could point to that were specific to how people react in and near the water.
I asked him if he was doing any more specific studies or if he was cooperating with any neuroscientists who were. He said that since his book was published in 2014, other studies have been published, and in his conference speech he described them.
Also, to the audience he said, “We talk a lot about the ecological, the economic and educational benefits of our work. We’re pretty good at quantifying this stuff, these 3 Es. We’re not so good at talking about or even including this emotional connection, the emotional benefits of healthy waterways. I would say, that should be switched to the top of the list. These are the benefits that grab people and bring them into the conversation.
”From a strategic perspective, first let’s not leave them out, and second, let’s prioritize them so that we’re fulfilling a larger movement. The emotional connection supercharges our understanding of ecological, economic and educational benefits of healthy waterways. By the way, emotion is something we can study. It can be as quantitative as you want it to be. It is hard science. Increasingly, organizations are using emotions as a tool to advance their advocacy work.”
Nichols offered this criticism and advice for environmental groups: “The environmental movement has used fear and anger to communicate about their issues. Guilt and shame are other motivators, and lots of facts — until they are confused. We talk about ecosystem services, we talk about the crisis. We blame you. It’s your fault. It’s terrible. The future is bleak. And by the way do you want to join my club? Sound familiar?
“Is that effective? We think it is. But we’ve proven time and time again, not so much. Maybe gratitude is another tool we can use. Love, what about that as a motivator?”
He left the conference attendees with this thought: “Water is life that makes life worth living as well. When we undervalue water, we lose that. When we undervalue anything or anyone, bad things happen. Water is our first medicine, for both physical and mental health. Bring the science of emotion to your conversations, do not ever leave it out.”
If you’d like more information, please check out his book. You can also read this blog post I wrote for my job.
Think about your own life. Are you stressed out? What helps you deal with that? Is it working for you? If not, remember the water. Remember music. Remember nature in general. Get out there. And don’t forget to breathe.
Another conversation I had with Mr. Nichols dealt with floatation tanks. You know, those are the tube tub things you can go in that are filled with warm salt water and silence.
They strike me as sort of scary, but Nichols He recommended them for dealing with stress or to inspire creativity.
A business in my town recently opened a flotation tank. I decided to live on the wild side and give one a try. My appointment is tonight. That’s what Part 2 will be about.
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