Dr. Wallace “J.” Nichols is a scientist, wild water advocate, movement-maker, dad, and author of the New York Times Bestseller, Blue Mind: “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.”
Dr. Nichols is a Research Associate at California Academy of Sciences and co-founder of OceanRevolution, an international network of young ocean advocates, SEE the WILD, a conservation travel network, Grupo Tortuguero, an international sea turtle conservation network, and LiV.BLUE!, a global campaign to reconnect us to our water planet.
Nichols earned his Bachelor’s degree in Biology and Spanish from DePauw University, a Master’s of Environmental Management in Environmental Policy and Economics from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, and his PhD in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Arizona’s School of Renewable Natural Resources where he received both a Marshall Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship. In 2010 he delivered the commencement address at DePauw University where he also received an honorary doctorate in science. In May 2014 he received the University of Arizona’s Global Achievement Award.
Q: What themes can we expect to find in your presentation at the Annual Convention?
A: The main point that I want to emphasize is that we drastically undervalue water in all of its forms. We do that by focusing mostly on the commodity value of water and not on all that a healthy body of water provides. In the case of the ocean, you hear about the jobs and oxygen that it produces, and you hear about the seafood and the energy. In the case of fresh water, you hear about hydration, recreation and industrial use. But you rarely, if ever, hear about the cognitive, emotional, and psychological effects of clean healthy water ways. Those are very important to the value of water.
My presentation will focus on making these effects real and challenging people to never leave that connection with water out of their work, their writing, or their speaking. We do have science that shows that the value of “blue space” is real and measurable. They are not imagined, touchy-feely, soft ideas- they are quite real and extremely important. Adding this into the way we talk about the worth of water will help us make a case for taking better care of and investing more in our water resources. At least that’s the hope.
Q: It looks like partnerships have been a crucial component of much of your work. Can you tell me about how and why these are important to your projects?
A: We work with everyone. Going back a few decades, I was doing sea turtle conservation work in different parts of the world. Most of the work was within fishing communities which could have been considered antagonistic to saving the sea turtles. Many of the fishermen were hunters. People thought that I had no place building alliances with fishing communities or turtle hunters. But what I learned was that fishermen are potentially the best allies once you reach a common denominator. Nobody really wants sea turtles to go extinct, even the people that hunt them. The conversation shifted and moved towards how we could work together to solve a problem. That is the way I’ve always approached problem solving: finding common ground; having people meet where they can agree…that can also be the case with water and water resources.
I recently gave a talk at a water conference in Florida. The audience was a very diverse group of people. Many of them came up afterwards and said, “I’ve been in the water business for a long time and I’ve never thought about water like this and it’s really true.” It gave them a whole new way of thinking about their life’s work, their family legacies, and what it is that they are delivering to their customers. Water is more than a product. Its inspiration and relaxation; it’s the stuff of our best memories.
Q: In Blue Mind, you discuss the brain’s reactions to being on, near, or around water, or viewing pictures of water. How does the human brain react when we are thinking about water in the context of work- perhaps designing infrastructure or discussing water rights?
A: What we’re both doing right now- processing language and filtering background noises, trying to represent ideas clearly- that is a very high energy cognitive function. That’s what we’re doing every day, all day long, for most of our lives.
When you move to the edge of the water a lot of those efforts and processes go away, particularly if you’re by yourself. Visual and audio cues are much simpler. Patterns are obvious. Your brain gets ‘free space’ to do other things. This can happen if you’re sitting at your desk and you just imagine or design a watery place that makes you happy or look at an image of it- it can shift you into that ‘blue mind’ mode.
If you’re working on a technical item that happens to be related to water, I think you’re probably in a ‘red mind’ mode unless you actively make an effort to shift your attention, allow for mind-wandering or bring up an image of blue space.
One idea of this science is to be able to move from ‘red mind’, which is an important and necessary part of our days, to ‘blue mind’ which is also important but often left out or forgotten. ‘Blue mind’ time is usually taken over by work, activities, or stress.
(For a visual representation of blue and red mind, please CLICK HERE).
A: All of us are a mix of our genetics and our neurology, plus our culture and our own personal experiences in our environments. You add all of those things together and you get you. Each of us has a different biological make up. When someone sees a body of water, there’s the possible predicted biological response to that water, but that can be overridden by a cultural context or a set of personal experiences.
Generally speaking, seeing or hearing water from a safe, controlled vantage point creates a sense of well-being in most people. For a lot of people, when they are asked to describe a healing space, they imagine some place with water (some sort of comfortable safe water). That’s because it is the one thing we need to survive. Having the signal that there’s safe water around gives people a sense of calm. It puts us into what I call ‘blue mind’.
‘Blue mind’ is a mildly meditative and relaxed state. This makes sense because the parts of your brain that are asking, “Where and how am I going to get water?” are put at ease when you receive the signal that water exists nearby.
It’s that combination of seeing the smooth, patterned, reflective surface and hearing the water sounds that seems to put people at ease. Not surprisingly, water sounds are the most popular non-pharmaceutical sleep aids.
An important part of this conversation is encouraging people to get in the water- to touch it in some way. To fall in love with your water, whatever it is, so you can access it in your memories and then hopefully act as a steward of the water. Then to share that story, your water story.
Q: What is the overarching vision of the Blue Mind Project?
A: The big, broad vision of the project is to change the way people think and feel and act towards water by adding knowledge about themselves and how their brains interact with the water aspects of our planet. That sounds both audacious and vague, but that is the big goal. By people I mean everybody and by water I mean all kinds of water. Obviously there’s a lot of work to do but I know there’s a need for this to happen.
Q: What prompted you to write a book about ‘blue mind’ in addition to facilitating the projects and annual convention in which you were already involved?
A: Early on when I was thinking on this topic, I went to the library to look for this book. I thought I would find it already written, but I soon realized that this book didn’t exist yet. I tried to get some other people to write it without success. By default, I eventually wrote it myself. I didn’t set out to write a book necessarily, I set out to read a book. Now I can read it, it’s available!
The way in which modern society handles books is changing through e-books and the internet, but books are still important. It’s a way to put a whole bunch of ideas in one place. The word “book” still has a weight to it. If I said I’d written a really extensive blog on ‘blue mind’, it wouldn’t have the same weight as a book.
I was thinking most about what would get people’s attention and what would advance the conversation, not as much about selling books. The collection of ideas we call a book is still a pretty important part of our culture and the way we communicate. That said, I hope you’ll take it in, in some format.