By Alex Hannaford
Photography by Dave Lauridsen
Nothing strikes you as out of the ordinary when you first see 13-year-old Taylor Cottrell paddling her surfboard 10 yards from the shoreline of Central California’s Avila Beach. On her face is the same elated smile all kids wear—especially as she pops to her feet and lets a wave carry her for a precious few seconds. A look of happy exhaustion replaces her ecstatic grin as she dives into the shallows and emerges from the water, her blond hair matted with salt water and clinging to her wet suit.
Something that might also go un-noticed is Taylor’s mother, Laurina, nervously looking on. Just a couple of months ago, Taylor was in a hospital, attached to an IV drip, feeling as if she had nothing to live for. A rare primary immune deficiency disorder, which renders the body’s natural killer cells unable to effectively fight infection, has, for most of Taylor’s life, left her in fear of handshakes, communal places, and unsanitized objects—any opportunity or setting in which germs might spread. For Taylor, a common cold could transmute into coughing fits, vomiting, and a fever of 106. She attended middle school in a wheelchair until the viruses she was picking up became so persistent that her doctors encouraged her family to pull her out. Barely a teenager, she was confined to her bed and unable to socialize with friends, contact with whom was deemed potentially life-threatening.
But a remarkable thing happened when Taylor waded into the Pacific. Her mother believes the ocean—and surfing, specifically—is giving her daughter a new lease on life. On an idyllic beach day in August, the man she credits with this amazing turnaround is standing chest-deep in the surf, waiting for Taylor to paddle back out to him.
Two years ago, Wallace “J” Nichols, a biologist and researcher at the California Academy of Sciences, started what has become an annual conference, bringing together neuroscientists and people who use the ocean for recreation in order to look seriously at its positive effects on our health. He called it Bluemind.
Nichols says neuroscientists have studied how everything from chocolate to red wine affects the brain, but they’ve somehow overlooked the single biggest feature on the planet. To remedy that, he reached out to, among others, Dr. Philippe Goldin, a postdoctoral researcher in Stanford’s psychology department. They explored the effect the ocean can have on conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder; how being near the ocean can achieve the same stress-relieving effects as meditation; and how the ocean ignites our emotional senses.
Nichols says that what we’re learning about our brains makes it clear that spending time outside, in motion, or on or near water is good medicine for our minds and bodies. “This isn’t a novel idea by any means, but our ability to connect the dots on the science of this is revolutionary,” he says. “These real-world applications to reduce stress, heal bodies, and—this isn’t an exaggeration—save lives are very exciting. Projects like Amazing Surf Adventures add to the growing mountain of evidence. In the future, will doctors be legitimately prescribing that their patients take two surf sessions and a walk on the beach? Yes, I know they will.”
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