By Wallace J. Nichols. Little Brown & Company, New York, 2014.
What if there was a way to scientifically describe the profound effects that water has on human beings? Wallace J. Nichols' “Blue Mind” attempts to answer that question in a joyous romp through what he calls, “the golden age of neuroscience.”
Nichols, a scientist working in sea turtle conservation, said that when he started his exploration of what he now calls “Blue Mind,” he looked for a book that could describe what neuroscience is discovering about the human nervous system and apply it to our experiences of water. But no one had written that book because no scientist had asked exactly that question. This set Nichols on a journey of discovery that he chronicles in the book.
Along the way, he describes the basics of neuroscience and how scientists are starting to map human emotions and consciousness, as well as asking the question, “how does the natural world, especially water, succeed in making us feel so good?” This scientific — and personal — exploration has led Nichols to host annual Blue Mind summits, bringing together scientists, anthropologists, artists and activists to explore the question. In doing so, Nichols has been one of a growing number of scientists who are exploring feelings and emotions in scientific inquiry, as well as environmental activism.
Just as Richard Louv (“Last Child in the Woods”) has championed the importance of nature for fostering healthy children, Nichols shows how this is especially true for water. He chronicles how science is unraveling the neural connections that show humans are hard-wired to need water — not just for physical survival — but for emotional survival: safety, well-being and stress reduction.
The presence and proximity of water supports the very real emotions of compassion, empathy and happiness — at levels that are becoming increasingly quantifiable by advanced techniques in neuroscience. The proliferation, and effectiveness, of water-based therapies and restoration activities for people afflicted by trauma and illness, or challenged by mental and physical disabilities, is living testament to truths being uncovered by science.
Nichols is unapologetic about building a “blue mind” movement. At lecture engagements, like last fall’s Chesapeake Bay Watershed Forum in Shepherdstown, WV, where I saw him speak, he starts and ends his talks with big blue marbles that he hands out to everyone. He said that everyone — especially environmentalists — needs to give time to restorative activities in and around the water to cultivate a blue mind: one that is relaxed, open and (yes) loving. The blue marble is meant as a reminder of the one, watery planet we live on, he said, and the capacity of water to heal and spiritually nourish us.
“When we look out upon the places that we know — the creeks, the rivers, the ocean — we are learning from science that this lights up the same part of the brain that gets activated by other kinds of love,” Nichols said.
The environmental movement is accustomed to using fear and bad news as the tool of choice, he said, but the blue marble and what he wants it to represent, “is a tool in our conservation toolbox, and unless we speak up for all of the attributes of water, they won’t all be counted.”
“Blue Mind” is a love story to water that weaves threads from science, philosophy, art, activism, education, social science and psychology into a fluid, still-being-discovered whole.
Plain and simple, reading this book made me feel good. And hopeful. And I call that a pretty good state of mind for any water lover.