Since time immemorial, humans have been captivated by water. And the reasons go beyond evolution
by Wallace J. Nichols, Salon, July 19, 2014
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 San Antonio River) 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 eyemovement 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
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% water. As we age, that number drops to below 60% — but the brain continues to be made of 80% 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.”
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. 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.
— Alan Watts
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.
Marcus Eriksen, a science educator who once sailed a raft made entirely of plastic bottles from the U.S. Pacific coast to Hawaii, expanded upon Dutton’s hypothesis to include seacoasts, lakeshores, or riverbanks. In the same way the savannah allowed us to see danger a long way off, he theorized, coastal dwellers could see predators or enemies as they came across the water. Better, land-based predators rarely came from the water, and most marine-based predators couldn’t emerge from the water or survive on land. Even better than that: the number of food and material resources provided in or near the water often trumped what could be found on land. The supply of plant-based and animal food sources may vanish in the winter, Eriksen observed, but our ancestors could fish or harvest shellfish year-round. And because the nature of water is to move and flow, instead of having to travel miles to forage, our ancestors could walk along a shore or riverbank and see what water had brought to them or what came to the water’s edge.
While humans were developing an evolutionary preference for a certain type of water-containing landscape, the human brain was also being shaped by environmental demands. Indeed, according to molecular biologist John Medina, the human brain evolved to “solve problems related to surviving in an unstable outdoor environment, and to do so in nearly constant motion.” Imagine that you are one of our distant Homo sapiens ancestors, living in that ideal savannah landscape more than 200,000 years ago. Even if you and your family have inhabited this particular spot for a while, you still must be alert for any significant threats or potential sources of food. Every day brings new conditions—weather, animals, fruits, and other edible plants. Use up some sources of food and you have to look for more, which means constant exploration of your environment to learn more about where you are and what other sources of food and water are available for you and your family. Perhaps you encounter new plants or animals, some of which are edible—some not. You learn from your mistakes what to gather and what to avoid. And while you and your children learn, your brains are being shaped and changed by multiple forces: your individual experiences, your social and cultural interactions, and your physical environment. Should you survive and reproduce, some of that rewiring will be passed on to your descendants in the form of a more complex brain. Additional information for survival will be socially encoded in vivid stories and songs.
A nervous system is the part of an animal that coordinates activity by transmitting signals about what’s happening both inside and outside the body. It’s made up of special types of cells called neurons, and ranges in size and complexity from just a few hundred nerve cells in the simplest worms, to some 20,000 neurons in the California sea hare, Aplysia californica (a very cool mollusk whose large, sometimes gigantic, neurons have made it the darling of neurobiologists for the past fifty years), to as many as 100 billion in humans. We’ll be looking in detail at the human brain and DNA in later chapters, but there’s an important point to be made before we leave our ancestors on the distant savannah: just as the human brain changed and evolved over the millennia, our individual brain changes and evolves from the day we are born until we die. Critical studies starting in the 1970s and 1980s demonstrated that our brains are in a state of constant evolution — neurons growing, connecting, and then dying off. Both the brain’s physical structure and its functional organization are plastic, changing throughout our lives depending on need, attention, sensory input, reinforcement, emotion, and many other factors. The brain’s neuroplasticity (its ability to continually create new neural networks, reshape existing ones, and eliminate networks that are no longer used due to changes in behavior, environment, and neural processes) is what allows us to learn, form memories throughout our lifetimes, recover function after a stroke or loss of sight or hearing, overcome destructive habits and become better versions of ourselves. Neuroplasticity accounts for the fact that, compared to most of us, a disproportionate amount of physical space in a violinist’s brain is devoted to controlling the fingers of his or her fingering hand, and that studying for exams can actually increase the amount of cortical space devoted to a particular subject (more complex functions generally require more brain matter). As we’ll see later, it also accounts for certain negative behaviors, like obsessive-compulsive disorder.
You will hear the term neuroplasticity a lot in this book, because it exemplifies one of the fundamental premises of Blue Mind: the fact that our brains — these magnificent, three-pound masses of tissue that are almost 80 percent water — are shaped, for good or ill, by a multitude of factors that include our perceptions, our emotions, our biology, our culture — and our environment.
You’ll also hear a lot about happiness. While the “pursuit of happiness” has been a focus of humankind since almost before we could put a name to the feeling, from ancient times onward philosophers have argued about the causes and uses of happiness, and composers, writers, and poets have filled our heads with stories of happiness lost and found. In the twenty-first century, however, the pursuit of happiness has become one of the most important means of judging our quality of life. “Happiness is an aspiration of every human being,” write John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey D. Sachs in the United Nations’ World Happiness Report 2013, which ranks 156 countries by the level of happiness of their citizens. It’s a vital goal: “People who are emotionally happier, who have more satisfying lives, and who live in happier communities, are more likely both now and later to be healthy, productive, and socially connected. These benefits in turn flow more broadly to their families, workplaces, and communities, to the advantage of all.”
“The purpose of our lives is to be happy,” says the Dalai Lama—and with all the many benefits of happiness, who would disagree? As a result, today we are bombarded with books on happiness, studies (and stories) about happiness, and happiness research of every kind. We’ll walk through some of the studies later, and discuss why water provides the most profound shortcut to happiness, but suffice it to say, greater individual happiness has been shown to make our relationships better; help us be more creative, productive, and effective at work (thereby bringing us higher incomes); give us greater self-control and ability to cope; make us more charitable, cooperative, and empathetic; boost our immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems; lower cortisol and heart rate, decrease inflammation, slow disease progression, and increase longevity. Research shows that the amount of happiness we experience spreads outward, affecting not just the people we know but also the friends of their friends as well (or three degrees of the famous six degrees of separation). Happy people demonstrate better cognition and attention, make better decisions, take better care of themselves, and are better friends, colleagues, neighbors, spouses, parents, and citizens. Blue Mind isn’t just about smiling when you’re near the water; it’s about smiling everywhere.
Water and Our Emotions
Some people love the ocean. Some people fear it. I love it, hate it, fear it, respect it, resent it, cherish it, loathe it, and frequently curse it. It brings out the best in me and sometimes the worst. — Roz Savage
This makes sense to me, as I’ve always been drawn to the stories and science of why we love the water. However, as a doctoral student studying evolutionary biology, wildlife ecology, and environmental economics, when I tried to weave emotion into my dissertation on the relationship between sea turtle ecology and coastal communities, I learned that academia had little room for feelings of any kind. “Keep that fuzzy stuff out of your science, young man,” my advisors counseled. Emotion wasn’t rational. It wasn’t quantifiable. It wasn’t science.
Talk about a “sea change”: today cognitive neuroscientists have begun to understand how our emotions drive virtually every decision we make, from our morning cereal choice, to who we sit next to at a dinner party, to how sight, smell, and sound affect our mood. Today we are at the forefront of a wave of neuroscience that seeks to discover the biological bases of everything, from our political choices to our color preferences. They’re using tools like EEGs, MRIs, and those fMRIs to observe the brain on music, the brain and art, the chemistry of prejudice, love, and meditation, and more. Daily these cutting-edge scientists are discovering why human beings interact with the world in the ways we do. And a few of them are now starting to examine the brain processes that underlie our connection to water. This research is not just to satisfy some intellectual curiosity. The study of our love for water has significant, real-world applications—for health, travel, real estate, creativity, childhood development, urban planning, the treatment of addiction and trauma, conservation, business, politics, religion, architecture, and more. Most of all, it can lead to a deeper understanding of who we are and how our minds and emotions are shaped by our interaction with the most prevalent substance on our planet.
The Tohono O’odham (which means “desert people”) are Native Americans who reside primarily in the Sonoran Desert of southeastern Arizona and northwest Mexico. When I was a graduate student at the University of Arizona, I used to take young teens from the Tohono O’odham Nation across the border to the Sea of Cortez (the Gulf of California). Many of them had never seen the ocean before, and most were completely unprepared for the experience, both emotionally and in terms of having the right gear. On one field trip several of the kids didn’t bring swim trunks or shorts—they simply didn’t own any. So we all sat down on the beach next to the tide pools of Puerto Peñasco, I pulled out a knife, and we all cut the legs off our pants, right then and there.
Once in the shallow water we put on masks and snorkels (we’d brought enough for everyone), had a quick lesson on how to breathe through a snorkel, and then set out to have a look around. After a while I asked one young man how it was going. “I can’t see anything,” he said. Turns out he’d been keeping his eyes closed underwater. I told him that he could safely open his eyes even though his head was beneath the surface. He put his face under and started to look around. Suddenly he popped up, pulled off his mask, and started shouting about all the fish. He was laughing and crying at the same time as he shouted, “My planet is beautiful!” Then he slid his mask back over his eyes, put his head back into the water, and didn’t speak again for an hour.
My memory of that day, everything about it, is crystal clear. I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet it is for him, too. Our love of water had made an indelible stamp on us. His first time in the ocean felt like mine, all over again.
The Beginnings of Blue Mind
In 2011, in San Francisco—a city surrounded by water on three sides—I gathered a group of neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, marine biologists, artists, conservationists, doctors, economists, athletes, urban planners, real estate agents, and chefs to explore the ways our brains, bodies, and psyches are enhanced by water. I had realized that there was a constellation of innovative thinkers who had been trying to put the pieces together regarding the powerful effects of water, but they had mostly been isolated from one another. Since then, the Blue Mind gathering has become an annual conference that taps into a growing quantity of new mind/body/environment research and continues to produce new and startling insights on how humanity interacts with our watery planet. Both the brain and the ocean are deep, complex, and subtle realms — scarcely explored and poorly understood. However, we are on the cusp of an age when both the brain and the ocean are giving up more and more of their secrets to dedicated scientists and explorers. As more researchers from varied disciplines apply their expertise to the relation between water and humanity, the insights from their collaborations are illuminating the biological, neurological, and sociological benefits of humanity’s Blue Mind.
Every year more experts of all kinds are connecting the dots between brain science and our watery world. This isn’t touchy-feely “let’s save the dolphins” conservation: we’re talking prefrontal cortex, amygdala, evolutionary biology, neuroimaging, and neuron functioning that shows exactly why humans seem to value being near, in, on, or under the water. And this new science has real-world implications for education, public policy, health care, coastal planning, travel, real estate, and business — not to mention our happiness and general well-being. But it’s science with a personal face; science practiced by real people, with opinions, biases, breakthroughs, and insights.
At subsequent Blue Mind conferences on the shores of the Atlantic and Pacific, scientists, practitioners, and students have continued to share their research and life’s work, huddling together to discuss, create, and think deeply. We’ve produced documents describing “what we think we know” (facts), “what we want to explore” (hypotheses), and “what we want to share” (teachings). At Blue Mind 2013, held on Block Island, we discussed topics like dopaminergic pathways, microplastics and persistent organic pollutants, auditory cortex physiology, and ocean acidification, but for those of us drawn to the waves, no discussion of water is without joy and celebration. At dawn we sang together, overlooking the sparkling blue Atlantic Ocean, and in the evening we drank wine, those waters now black and sparkling, and listened to former Rhode Island poet laureate Lisa Starr.
“Listen, dear one,” it whispers.This is poetry, this is science; this is science, this is poetry. So, too, are oceans and seas, rivers and ponds, swimming pools and hot springs — all of us could use a little more poetry in our lives.
“You only think you have
forgotten the impossible.
“Go now, to that marsh beyond
Fresh Pond and consider how the red
burgeons into crimson;
go see how it’s been preparing forever
We could use a lot more, too — and, in some cases, a lot less. Too many of us live overwhelmed—suffocated by work, personal conflicts, the intrusion of technology and media. Trying to do everything, we end up stressed about almost anything. We check our voice mail at midnight, our e-mail at dawn, and spend the time in between bouncing from website to website, viral video to viral video. Perpetually exhausted, we make bad decisions at work, at home, on the playing field, and behind the wheel. We get flabby because we decide we don’t have the time to take care of ourselves, a decision ratified by the fact that those “extra” hours are filled with e-mailing, doing reports, attending meetings, updating systems to stay current, repairing what’s broken.
We’re constantly trying to quit one habit just to start another. We say the wrong things to people we love, and love the wrong things because expediency and proximity make it easier to embrace what’s passing right in front of us. We make excuses about making excuses, but we still can’t seem to stop the avalanche. All of this has a significant economic cost as “stress and its related comorbid diseases are responsible for a large proportion of disability worldwide.”
Time to dive in.