A review of Wallace J. Nichols’s Blue Mind
By Erik Vance (Graphic: Conservation Magazine)
Imagine for a moment you are somewhere south of Playa del Carmen. It’s hot, and you’ve been in a plane, a bus, and then a taxi all day. You’re tired and grumpy as you check into the hotel with your broken Spanish. Now imagine that first glimpse of the clear-blue Caribbean as you step out of the cabana. The stress of the day melts away as you smell the sweet ocean breeze. And you run into the ocean, squealing like a kid.
It’s no secret that most modern humans enjoy the water. It’s where we go on vacation, it inundates our language, and it dictates where we want to live. Just look at a map of the world at night—all the lights are clustered on the coasts.
Most likely, this ocean obsession is some historical relic combining convenience, commerce, and culture tied up with a neat little Winslow Homer bow. But is it possible that there is some part of your brain that likes—nay, needs—to be near the water? That’s the subject of a new book called Blue Mind by Wallace J. Nichols.
Nichols, a well-respected marine biologist from California whose work blends ecology and population dynamics with a distinct conservation message, is known for being an excellent communicator. A few years back, I saw him give a talk in which he handed everyone in the room a blue marble that represented our fragile Earth, seen from afar. He told us all to hang on to our marble—to wait and give it to someone who would appreciate the gravity of this message, thus spreading the word about the plight of our oceans.
Normally I’m a pretty savvy guy, not subject to sentimentalism. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t hang on to that marble for months afterwards, quietly looking for someone to give it to. And this is Nichols’s strength—inspiring people to remember why they care for the oceans. Introducing complex brain science, à la Carl Zimmer or Oliver Sacks? Less so.
As a scientist, I’ve worked in both cognition and marine ecology; as a writer, I’ve covered both the exploding world of brain science and our deteriorating oceans. I’m a decent kayaker, a lousy surfer, and a lover of long beach walks. Like Nichols, I feel a deep sense of peace when I go to the coast, with its long expanses of blue that cover untold wonders and adventure.
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