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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
Foreword by Celine Cousteau
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Why are we drawn to the ocean each summer? Why does being near water set our minds and bodies at ease? In Blue Mind, Wallace J. Nichols revolutionizes how we think about these questions, revealing the remarkable truth about the benefits of being in, on, under, or simply near water.
Combining cutting-edge neuroscience with compelling personal stories from top athletes, leading scientists, military veterans, and gifted artists, he shows how proximity to water can improve performance, increase calm, diminish anxiety, and increase professional success. Blue Mind not only illustrates the crucial importance of our connection to water; it provides a paradigm shifting “blueprint” for a better life on this Blue Marble we call home.
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
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One of the many possible ways to describe a life would be as a series of encounters with various bodies of water. Time spent in, on, under, or near water interspersed with the periods spent thinking about where, when, and how to reach it next.
My first body of water, of course, was experienced as a zygote in my mother's womb. And the last—at least as I now imagine it—will be in the form of ashes, cast over the Pacific.
In between, I've been fascinated by and privileged to know many ponds, tanks, rivers, bottles, pools, lakes, streams, buckets, waterfalls, quarries, tubs, mists, oceans, downpours, and puddles.
As children we delight in water. As we grow older, water also becomes the matrix for sport, relaxation, and romance.
My parents took me to the Caribbean as a small child. The photos from that trip seem so familiar that I can still feel the day: sitting on the beach next to the ocean, smiling in the Bahamian sun. I believe my happy memories of the sea were carried forward by those cherished, faded photographs.
Soon after that trip, prior to my third birthday, I had a vivid dream in anticipation of a celebration. At the party in my dream we all sat at a round table under the peach tree in my backyard in Westwood, New Jersey. Everyone received a gift. We were served tea, and at the bottom of the teacups were iron figurines. Somehow, we each became very small and the cups became enormous as we dove down to the bottom to find and retrieve our gift. My friend Steve got a race car. Rusty's was a dog. Mine was a black bear standing on all four legs. I loved that dream—so much so that I tried to dream it again every night before going to sleep. And every time I saw a bear, or a cast-iron car or dog, or a cup of tea, I thought of my dream. That went on for months and then years, dreaming and daydreaming, and wanting to dream about diving into a teacup to retrieve an iron bear. I still have that dream.
At five years of age I became more curious about being adopted. Questions just seemed to lead to more questions and eventually a driven inquiry into the basics of human genetics. That same year I was afflicted with a severe case of spinal meningitis and hospitalized. It was then that I also became intimately familiar with—and curious about—my own nervous system. My adoptive mother was a nurse, and texts and manuals from nursing school days became the scriptures of my childhood. Science, exploration, medicine, and the existence of occupations related to helping people heal grew as a seed in my mind.
In high school, my favorite weekend activity was to push off the shore at night in a canoe with just a box of Pop-Tarts, a fishing pole, and Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. Fish or no fish, the solitude of night drifting was an epic escape.
A few years later, in college at DePauw University, I began to wonder more formally as a young student of science about why I liked water so much. Snorkeling in Bowman Pond on campus and scuba diving in Indiana's quarries were somewhat unusual activities. Exploring the many creeks, rivers, and lakes of the Midwest, I also began to explore the human brain, somewhat by accident.
My sophomore year I was invited by the university chaplain to provide guitar lessons as a volunteer at a nursing home in town. I obliged and ended up spending Wednesday afternoons for eight months playing music with Barbara Daugherty, a woman who had lost her memory—including her ability to play guitar—in an automobile accident fifteen years prior, when she herself was a sophomore in college. The music lessons seemed to trigger long-lost memories, which, once flowing, often continued. The nurses were impressed. I was too, and curious. I'd return to campus and try to learn more about the brain–music connection from professors and journals, without much luck. These days a Google search would turn up endless publications on the topic, but in 1986 that wasn't the case. This early brush with music therapy was logged deep in my memory.
At Duke University I explored wild rivers and the Outer Banks and studied economics, public policy, and decision science. But our science and policy texts were incapable of including the feeling of running a rapid, sitting at the bottom of a quarry, the physiology of retrieved memories and nostalgia, or the creative elixir of floating beneath the stars to Swan Lake.
After receiving a doctorate from the landlocked University of Arizona, I proposed to my wife, Dana, underwater off the coast of Cabo Pulmo, Mexico. I wordlessly slipped a sea-turtle-shaped ring onto her finger.
As parents of Grayce and Julia, our favorite moments together involve water.
After two decades working as a marine biologist studying sea turtles, the brain-on-water theme remained on my mind. In fact, curiosity about neuroscience often informed our approach to rebuilding sea turtle populations, one human at a time.
In 2009, the Pew Marine Fellows program generously nominated me for one of their annual awards, as they had a few years prior. The first time I had proposed a community-based sea turtle research project. This time I proposed looking into the science behind our emotional connection to water. I figured that if the pull of water could guide my life so far—as well as that of many, if not most, of my colleagues—those emotions might also be worth knowing more about.
As a non-neuroscientist I composed a rather good proposal about Blue Mind and submitted it to the foundation. The first round (sea turtles) I had been denied the fellowship because I was "too young." This time the response was "too creative." Despite these setbacks, both projects have moved forward, and I have greatly enjoyed the many collaborations and contributions that have come from them.
Now I am neither too young nor too creative, but I am patient, persistent, and truly enamored.
This book is the result of that mix: a life driven by a love of water, some patience and persistence, and a lot of collaboration and conversation with fellow water lovers and scientists, a truly excellent group of people.
Near the end of The Ocean of Life, marine biologist Callum Roberts's thorough and insightful treatment of the history of ocean use and overuse, he describes some of the fundamental ingredients needed for fixing what's broken on our blue planet: "It is essential for ocean life and our own that we transform ourselves from being a species that uses up its resources to one that cherishes and nurtures them."
The same can be said for our planet's lakes, rivers, and wetlands, as well as its forests and prairies.
But if this is the emotional foundation of our future, insights into what it means to cherish and nurture could be useful indeed. How do these Blue-Minded emotions work? What are they made of, and how do we make more? Those are some of the fundamental questions of neuroconservation.
Roberts continues, "People have a deep emotional connection to the sea. The oceans inspire, thrill, and soothe us. Some think we owe our clever brains and the success they brought to our ancestors' close link to the sea. But our relationship with the sea stretches back through time much further than this: all the way to the origins of life itself. We are creatures of the ocean."
Clearly, creating more protection and restoration will require that we better appreciate and understand the science behind, and what goes into, the mysterious elixir called inspiration, the chemistry of thrill, and the main ingredient found in soothe.
Combined with pinches of empathy, nostalgia, responsibility, gratitude, and a big scoop of love for our waters, we have a fighting chance to get this right.
You have to do it because you can't stand not to. That's the best reason to do anything.
Truth be known, I tried my hardest to give this project away to those with better training, better brains, better résumés for the job. There were no takers. So, I built upon what I have learned about people and water from my teachers: Herman Melville, Joshua Slocum, Chuy Lucero, Don Thomson, Loren Eiseley, Jacques Cousteau, Pak Lahanie, Wade Hazel, Pablo Neruda, Juan de la Cruz Villalejos, Sylvia Earle, Mike Orbach, Cecil Schwalbe, and Mary Oliver.
Mostly, we've connected the dots that we could find and worked to make the best sense of the patterns that emerged. The goal has been less about providing absolute answers and more about asking new questions—questions that, hopefully, in your capable hands, lead to creative new ways of exploring living well together on our water planet.
Back in 2005, the late author David Foster Wallace opened his commencement speech at Kenyon College with a story about three fish: "There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says 'Morning, boys. How's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, 'What the hell is water?'"
That's the fundamental question that started my own journey. What is water? Why are we humans so enthralled by it? And why is this question so obvious and important, yet so hard to adequately answer?
Later in his speech, Wallace told the graduating class that education should be based on simple awareness: "Awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: 'This is water.'"
This book is an attempt to begin a conversation about water based on new questions and current research. I hope to bring to our simple awareness the reality and essence—and beauty—of this small blue marble we live, move, and love upon.
Even though it's hidden in plain sight.
Why Do We Love Water So Much?
Water is life's matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.
—ALBERT SZENT-GYÖRGYI, M.D., DISCOVERER OF VITAMIN C
I'm standing on a pier at the Outer Banks of North Carolina, fifty feet above the Atlantic. To the left and right, forward, back, and below, all I can see is ocean. I'm wearing a light blue hat that looks like a bejeweled swim cap, and a heavy black cable snakes down my back like a ponytail. Even though I look like an extra from an Esther Williams movie who wandered into Woody Allen's Sleeper by mistake, in truth I'm a human lab rat, here to measure my brain's response to the ocean.
The cap is the nerve center of a mobile electroencephalogram (EEG) unit, invented by Dr. Stephen Sands, biomedical science expert and chief science officer of Sands Research. Steve's a big, burly, balding guy of the sort that could be mistaken for the local high school science teacher who's also the football coach, or perhaps the captain of one of the deep-sea fishing boats that call the Outer Banks home. An El Paso (a city on the Rio Grande) resident by way of Long Beach, California, and Houston, Texas, Steve spent years in academia as a professor, using brain imaging to research Alzheimer's disease. In 1998 he established Neuroscan, which became the largest supplier of EEG equipment and software for use in neurological research. In 2008 Steve founded Sands Research, a company that does neuromarketing, a new field using behavioral and neurophysiological data to track the brain's response to advertising. "People's responses to any kind of stimulus, including advertising, include conscious activity—things we can verbalize—and subconscious activity," he once wrote. "But the subconscious responses can't be tracked through traditional market research methods." When groups of neurons are activated in the brain by any kind of stimulus—a picture, a sound, a smell, touch, taste, pain, pleasure, or emotion—a small electrical charge is generated, which indicates that neurological functions such as memory, attention, language processing, and emotion are taking place in the cortex. By scrutinizing where those electrical charges occur in the brain, Steve's sixty-eight-channel, full-spectrum EEG machine can measure everything from overall engagement to cognition, attention, the level of visual or auditory stimulation, whether the subject's motor skills are involved, and how well the recognition and memory circuits are being stimulated. "When you combine EEG scans with eye-movement tracking, you get unique, entirely nonverbal data on how someone is processing the media or the real-world environment, moment by moment," Steve says.
Given current perplexity about the value of promotional efforts, Steve's data are increasingly sought after. Sands Research does advertising impact studies for some of the largest corporations in the world; it's perhaps best known for an "Annual Super Bowl Ad Neuro Ranking," which evaluates viewers' neurological responses to those $3.8-million-per-thirty-second spots. (Among those that Steve's team measured were the well known ads that featured people sitting on a beach, backs to the camera as they gazed at white sand and blue water, Corona beers on the table between them, and only the lapping of the sea as a soundtrack. That campaign made the brewer famous, forever associated with tropical ocean leisure.)
In the months prior to my trip to the Outer Banks, I'd been contacted by Sands Research's director of business development, Brett Fitzgerald. Brett's an "outside" kind of guy with a history of working with bears in Montana. He'd heard about my work combining water science with neuroscience and contacted me to see if we could do some sort of project together. Before I knew it, he was on a plane to California, and we met along the coast north of my home to talk "brain on ocean." Not long after, I was on a plane heading to North Carolina.
Today Brett has fitted me with a version of the Sands Research EEG scanning apparatus that can detect human brain activity with the same level of precision as an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). The data from the electrodes in this ornamented swim cap are sampled 256 times per second and, when amplified for analysis, will allow neuroscientists to see in real time which areas of the brain are being stimulated. Typically such data are used to track shoppers' responses in stores like Walmart as they stop to look at new products on a shelf. In this case, however, the sixty-eight electrodes plugged into the cap on my head are for measuring my every neurological up and down as I plunge into the ocean. It's the first time equipment like this has been considered for use at (or in) the water, and I'm a little anxious about both the current incompatibility (no pun intended) between the technology and the ocean, but also about what we might learn. So is Brett—the cap and accompanying scanning device aren't cheap. In the future such a kit will be made waterproof and used underwater, or while someone is surfing. But for today, we're just hoping that neither the equipment nor I will be the worse for wear after our testing and scheming at the salt-sprayed pier.
It's only recently that technology has enabled us to delve into the depths of the human brain and into the depths of the ocean. With those advancements our ability to study and understand the human mind has expanded to include a stream of new ideas about perception, emotions, empathy, creativity, health and healing, and our relationship with water. Several years ago I came up with a name for this human–water connection: Blue Mind, a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment. It is inspired by water and elements associated with water, from the color blue to the words we use to describe the sensations associated with immersion. It takes advantage of neurological connections formed over millennia, many such brain patterns and preferences being discovered only now, thanks to innovative scientists and cutting-edge technology.
In recent years, the notion of "mindfulness" has edged closer and closer to the mainstream. What was once thought of as a fringe quest for Eastern vacancy has now been recognized as having widespread benefits. Today the search for the sort of focus and awareness that characterizes Blue Mind extends from the classroom to the boardroom to the battlefield, from the doctor's office to the concert hall to the world's shorelines. The stress produced in our overwhelmed lives makes that search more urgent.
Water's amazing influence does not mean that it displaces other concerted efforts to reach a mindful state; rather, it adds to, enhances, and expands. Yet this book is not a field guide to meditation, nor a detailed examination of other means toward a more mindful existence. To use a water-based metaphor, it offers you a compass, a craft, some sails, and a wind chart. In an age when we're anchored by stress, technology, exile from the natural world, professional suffocation, personal anxiety, and hospital bills, and at a loss for true privacy, casting off is wonderful. Indeed, John Jerome wrote in his book Blue Rooms that "the thing about the ritual morning plunge, the entry into water that provides the small existential moment, is its total privacy. Swimming is between me and the water, nothing else. The moment the water encloses me, I am, gratefully, alone." Open your Blue Mind and the ports of call will become visible.
To properly navigate these depths, over the past several years I've brought together an eclectic group of scientists, psychologists, researchers, educators, athletes, explorers, businesspeople, and artists to consider a fundamental question: what happens when our most complex organ—the brain—meets the planet's largest feature—water?
As a marine biologist as familiar with the water as I am with land, I believe that oceans, lakes, rivers, pools, even fountains can irresistibly affect our minds. Reflexively we know this: there's a good reason why Corona chose a beach and not, say, a stockyard. And there are logical explanations for our tendency to go to the water's edge for some of the most significant moments of our lives. But why?
I look out from the pier at the vast Atlantic and imagine all the ways that the sight, sound, and smell of the water are influencing my brain. I take a moment to notice the feelings that are arising. For some, I know, the ocean creates fear and stress; but for me it produces awe and a profound, immersive, and invigorating peace. I take a deep breath and imagine the leap, cables trailing behind me as I plunge into the waves surging around the pier. The EEG readings would reflect both my fear and exhilaration as I hit the water feet first. I imagine Dr. Sands peering at a monitor as data come streaming in.
Water fills the light, the sound, the air—and my mind.
Our (Evolving) Relationship to Water
Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.
—W. H. AUDEN
There's something about water that draws and fascinates us. No wonder: it's the most omnipresent substance on Earth and, along with air, the primary ingredient for supporting life as we know it. For starters, ocean plankton provides more than half of our planet's oxygen. There are approximately 332.5 million cubic miles of water on Earth—96 percent of it saline. (A cubic mile of water contains more than 1.1 trillion gallons.) Water covers more than 70 percent of Earth's surface; 95 percent of those waters have yet to be explored. From one million miles away our planet resembles a small blue marble; from one hundred million miles it's a tiny, pale blue dot. "How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean," author Arthur C. Clarke once astutely commented.
That simple blue marble metaphor is a powerful reminder that ours is an aqueous planet. "Water is the sine qua non of life and seems to be all over the universe and so it's reasonable for NASA to use a 'follow the water' strategy as a first cut or shorthand in our quest to locate other life in the universe," Lynn Rothschild, an astrobiologist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, told me. "While it may not be the only solvent for life, it certainly makes a great one since it is abundant, it's liquid over a broad temperature range, it floats when solid, allowing for ice-covered lakes and moons, and it's what we use here on Earth."
Whether searching the universe or roaming here at home humans have always sought to be by or near water. It's estimated that 80 percent of the world's population lives within sixty miles of the coastline of an ocean, lake, or river. Over half a billion people owe their livelihoods directly to water, and two-thirds of the global economy is derived from activities that involve water in some form. Approximately a billion people worldwide rely primarily on water-based sources for protein. (It's very possible that increased consumption of omega-3 oils from eating fish and shellfish played a crucial role in the evolution of the human brain. And, as we'll discuss later in the book, the seafood market is now global in a manner that could never have been imagined even a few decades ago.) We use water for drinking, cleansing, working, recreating, and traveling. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, each person in the United States uses eighty to one hundred gallons of water every day for what we consider our "basic needs." In 2010 the General Assembly of the United Nations declared, "Safe and clean drinking water is a human right essential to the full enjoyment of life."
Our innate relationship to water goes far deeper than economics, food, or proximity, however. Our ancient ancestors came out of the water and evolved from swimming to crawling to walking. Human fetuses still have "gill-slit" structures in their early stages of development, and we spend our first nine months of life immersed in the "watery" environment of our mother's womb. When we're born, our bodies are approximately 78 percent water. As we age, that number drops to below 60 percent—but the brain continues to be made of 80 percent water. The human body as a whole is almost the same density as water, which allows us to float. In its mineral composition, the water in our cells is comparable to that found in the sea. Science writer Loren Eiseley once described human beings as "a way that water has of going about, beyond the reach of rivers."1
We are inspired by water—hearing it, smelling it in the air, playing in it, walking next to it, painting it, surfing, swimming or fishing in it, writing about it, photographing it, and creating lasting memories along its edge. Indeed, throughout history, you see our deep connection to water described in art, literature, and poetry. "In the water I am beautiful," admitted Kurt Vonnegut.2 Water can give us energy, whether it's hydraulic, hydration, the tonic effect of cold water splashed on the face, or the mental refreshment that comes from the gentle, rhythmic sensation of hearing waves lapping a shore. Immersion in warm water has been used for millennia to restore the body as well as the mind. Water drives many of our decisions—from the seafood we eat, to our most romantic moments, and from where we live, to the sports we enjoy, and the ways we vacation and relax. "Water is something that humanity has cherished since the beginning of history, and it means something different to everyone," writes archeologist Brian Fagan. We know instinctively that being by water makes us healthier, happier, reduces stress, and brings us peace.
In 1984 Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard University biologist, naturalist, and entomologist, coined the term "biophilia" to describe his hypothesis that humans have "ingrained" in our genes an instinctive bond with nature and the living organisms we share our planet with. He theorized that because we have spent most of our evolutionary history—three million years and 100,000 generations or more—in nature (before we started forming communities or building cities), we have an innate love of natural settings. Like a child depends upon its mother, humans have always depended upon nature for our survival. And just as we intuitively love our mothers, we are linked to nature physically, cognitively, and emotionally.
You didn't come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here.
This preference for our mother nature has a profound aesthetic impact. The late Denis Dutton, a philosopher who focused on the intersection of art and evolution, believed that what we consider "beautiful" is a result of our ingrained linkage to the kind of natural landscape that ensured our survival as a species. During a 2010 TED talk, "A Darwinian Theory of Beauty," Dutton described findings based on both evolutionary psychology and a 1997 survey of contemporary preference in art. When people were asked to describe a "beautiful" landscape, he observed, the elements were universally the same: open spaces, covered with low grass, interspersed with trees. And if you add water to the scene—either directly in view, or as a distant bluish cast that the eye takes as an indication of water—the desirability of that landscape skyrockets. Dutton theorized that this "universal landscape" contains all the elements needed for human survival: grasses and trees for food (and to attract edible animal life); the ability to see approaching danger (human or animal) before it arrives; trees to climb if you need to escape predators; and the presence of an accessible source of water nearby. In 2010 researchers at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom asked forty adults to rate over one hundred pictures of different natural and urban environments. Respondents gave higher ratings for positive mood, preference, and perceived restorativeness to any picture containing water, whether it was in a natural landscape or an urban setting, as opposed to those photos without water.
- On Sale
- Jul 22, 2014
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Little, Brown and Company