What’s your first memory of water? Was it a family trip to the beach? Diving into a community pool? Splashing in a puddle? It is hard to deny that something powerful happens, emotionally, when many of us are near water. Dr. Wallace J. Nichols spoke about the science behind this feeling at the fifth Holland Lifelong event at Ashley Hall on Wednesday, February 15.
Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, known simply as “J” to colleagues and marine enthusiasts alike, is the bestselling author of Blue Mind who got his start in sea turtle biology. Growing up, J recalls telling his father, “Dad, I’m not going to be a businessman or engineer. I’m going to be a turtle guy.” When asked what he would do with that, J confidently told him, “Everything.” J has fond memories that supported his dream career early on, having spent many days growing up capturing, recording and releasing turtles just for fun. He would use this early “mark and recapture” experiment to understand fractions and other math equations to derive population estimates. Later in life, J made a considerable impact in the world of science and sea turtles, having tagged and tracked the first animal across an ocean basin (Mexico to Japan), a female loggerhead named Adelita.
Throughout his career, J began to question another scientific phenomenon yet to be explained – the impact of water on human health. J sought to understand “the brain on water”. His initial research on the subject left him empty-handed. There were many resources about the effects of things like music or math on the brain, but nothing about the impact of water or blue spaces. In a search for answers, and with a push from mentor Oliver Sacks, J pursued, and completed, a goal of writing a book focusing on what it means to have a “Blue Mind”.
When scientists study habitats and their benefits, they often focus on the three “E’s” – Ecological, Economic and Educational benefits. However, scientists leave out another key indicator – the Emotional benefit. This combined study of emotion is an important component to what J has coined “neuroconservation”. J seeks to share with the world that understanding the cognitive benefits of exposure to water can motivate those to care for the planet as a whole.
One day, J hopes to see academic departments, majors and minors that relate to the “science of awe” and neuroconservation. “Research shows that roughly 60% of leading diseases are caused by stress. This represents your “red mind” – and while sometimes we need the emotions that come with a “red mind”, the overwhelming amount that we feel today only hinders our abilities,” J states.
So how does J help us get our “blue mind” on and connect science with emotion? Through a simple blue marble. “When you hold this blue marble at arm’s length, you see what Earth looks like from one million miles away – relatively small and entirely blue. This marble serves as a reminder that everything we do matters. It also serves as a reminder of the gratitude we feel for the person that first introduced us to water and how much we appreciate our relationship with water.”
We’ll carry this theme through the finale of this year’s Holland Lifelong Learning series as we not only appreciate water, but understand how to protect it from plastic pollution. Please join us on March 30th for “Plastic Planet: Turning the Tides on the Plastic Pollution Crisis”.