REGION — Surfers, swimmers, sailors and essentially anyone who spends time in or on oceans, rivers or streams will say being near the water is Utopian.
Many cannot explain why such feelings are evoked other than to say their experiences are emotional or perhaps even spiritual.
Wallace J. Nichols begs to differ. A marine biologist and author of “Blue Mind,” a New York Times bestseller, Nichols says his research shows the body has a biological reaction to water that can improve health and happiness and make people more connected and better at what they do.
“When you put your toes into the water or get out on a surfboard, sometimes you feel like Superman or woman, and that means something changed in your brain,” he said. “So what is it?”
That question, while trying to protect endangered sea turtles, is what motivated Nichols to discover the “blue mind,” which refers to the mildly meditative state our brains are in when exposed to water.
Originally from Manhattan, New York, Nichols said he was always around water, either vacationing on the coast or “messing around in creeks.”
“I dreamed of being a marine biologist,” he said. “Jacques Cousteau was the man.”
He earned his bachelor’s degree in biology and Spanish from DePauw University and a master’s of environmental management in environmental policy and economics from Duke University. Nichols also holds a doctorate in wildlife ecology from the University of Arizona.
His field work took him to Mexico, where he studied sea turtles.
“I knew a small group of people would read my papers but I would never change the world,” he said.
“I wanted to help solve problems, not identify them or describe them.
“I knew I could study sea turtles and travel to great places but to solve the problem I needed to work with the people who were hunting them,” he added.
So Nichols asked fishermen what motivated them to kill an endangered animal. They told him it was money.
“But I knew that couldn’t be the only reason,” he said. “I don’t work just for the money.”
He asked if they would consider a job building boats, which is safer and pays more. “They said, ‘No way,’” Nichols said. “They needed to be on the water.”
Nichols learned the fishermen take pride in their work, and their colleagues were their friends, so there was a social aspect to it.
During his research he also discovered all decisions have an emotional component. “Even what we have for breakfast is an emotional decision,” he said. “Emotions drive us. Marketers have understood this for a while.”
Nichols began looking for research on the neuroscience of water. “We’ve studied your brain on everything — wine, music, even bacon. I figured there must be a book on how your brain reacts to water since it’s the most important subject. We’re a water planet.”
When he came up empty handed, he said he tried to get someone else to write such a book but his attempts were unsuccessful. So Nichols immersed himself in neuroscience, going to conferences, reading books and listening to tapes on the subject, even while in the water.
“Every swim was a lecture,” he said.
His efforts resulted in Blue Mind Summits, during which he pairs water experts such as big-wave surfers “or anyone with the last name Cousteau” with scientists. He then gives them about an hour to discuss a question that’s never been asked.
Topics during the four summits he has held so far have included surf addiction and the over-consumption of endangered animals.
Nichols said the best way to understand the blue mind is to compare it to the red mind, which he defines as the brain during normal everyday activities, such as dealing with deadlines, sitting in traffic and being stressed or overstimulated.
“When you go out to the water you leave your phone behind,” he said. “Visual, cognitive and auditory things become more simple. It’s your brain on vacation, which is good to do once in a while.
“It’s like when you get stuck trying to solve a problem,” he added. “They tell you to daydream, switch away. That’s kind of what happens when you’re on the water.”
He said that experience results in a sense of awe, which creates an opportunity for more empathy and compassion.
“Awe moves you from me to we,” he explained. “If most awe is developed in the confines of a video game, that diminishes the capacity for empathy.”
Nichols said such feelings and experiences don’t occur exclusively when people are near water. He said they can also happen while on a hike in the mountains.
“It’s not a competition between nature,” he said. “But water covers most of the planet and our bodies are mostly water so it’s a good place to start.”
As the keynote speaker during the second annual San Diego County Watershed Summit at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, Nichols presented his research to highlight the importance of maintaining healthy waterways.
The Oct. 30 workshop, hosted by San Diego Gas & Electric, included about 200 representatives from local wetland nonprofit groups, regional and national environmental organizations, municipalities and water agencies and regulators.
The benefits of healthy oceans, rivers and wetlands are not just financial, but emotional as well. People often have fond memories of experiences near the water, whether it’s a walk on the beach or catching that perfect wave.
Surrounded by social media and ubiquitous surveillance cameras, Nichols said waterways remain among the few places that are still private, and privacy is good for mental health.
“We underappreciate those cognitive, emotional, social and psychological benefits of the water,” he said. “These feelings are real and they are important.”
Nichols said proximity to water increases the release of “feel-good” hormones and decreases levels of the stress hormone. So his research can be helpful when dealing with ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction.
“It’s not a silver bullet,” he said. “But it’s worth putting it into the tool kit.”
Nichols said initially he feared his work wouldn’t be taken seriously.
“The stuff that feels touchy-feely is the hardest science in the world,” he said. “But if you don’t think this is hard science, then you don’t understand it.”