November 18, 2011

Wallace J. Nichols

Outside Magazine "During one lecture at Stanford, Nichols implored graduate students to remember that, as conservationists, 'we have the power of happiness on our side'."
By Michael Roberts

'NICHOLS DOES THROW a hell of a conference. This past June, for his Bluemind Summit, which he billed as a gathering that would “forever link the studies of mind and ocean,” Nichols wrangled a remarkably eclectic mix of neuro-nerds, greens, adventurers, futurists, artists, a video-game inventor, a high-end realtor, and one very gnarly big-wave surfer to the Academy of Sciences for a marathon day of presentations. The lineup alone demonstrated Nichols’s flair for making science both relevant and accessible.

'Early on, Eric Johnson, a nattily attired realtor with Sotheby’s, cited the premium people are willing to pay for a water view. “We can see the storms or pirates approaching,” said Johnson, noting that wealthy owners of high-rise apartments are automatic environmentalists because “clean, clear water keeps property values up.” Marcus Eriksen, a marine scientist known for a 2008 crossing of the Pacific in his Junk, a raft made primarily of plastic debris, discussed our basic biological reasons for living on the seashore: lots of food and few predators. Ocean activist Fabien Cousteau noted that humans and whales share the mammalian reflex, which allows us to stay underwater for long periods without breathing, while Maverick’s surfer Jeff Clark talked about his learned ability to sense things like the presence of sharks. “Listening to the feedback that the ocean provides will keep you surfing for years,” he concluded.

'There were some lighter touches. A cellist kicked things off with a medley “full of ocean-ness”—a Nichols request—and each presenter was introduced with a six-word bio (“passion, teacher, vegetables…”). At one point, Jaimal Yogis, author of Salt-water Buddha, about his quest to find Zen through surfing, led everyone in meditation. Hugs happened.

'Still, several cognitive scientists were also on hand to offer serious theories about the brain-on-ocean dynamic. Philippe Goldin, a clinical psychologist and a neuroscientist at Stanford, cited research showing that meditation helped some people with anxiety regain their calm after an emotional event, then speculated that similar processes might be going on in the brains of surfers, who learn to react immediately to a rising swell, then “enjoy the time between waves” after a set passes. Michael Merzenich, a professor emeritus of neuroscience at the University of California at San Francisco and one of the foremost authorities on neuro-plasticity—the brain’s ability to rewire itself—suggested that our attraction to the ocean may derive from its lack of physical markers. On land, we are constantly mapping our environment in our minds so we can pick out dangers (snake!) amid landmarks (tree, bush, rock). Looking over a calm sea is akin to closing our eyes. And when something does emerge on the surface, it captivates us.'

Blue Marbles

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