Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near
One of the many possible ways to describe a life would be as a series of encounters with various bodies of water. Time spent in, on, under, or near water interspersed with the periods spent thinking about where, when, and how to reach it next.
My first body of water, of course, was experienced as a zygote in my mother’s womb. And the last—at least as I now imagine it—will be in the form of ashes, cast over the Pacific.
In between, I’ve been fascinated by and privileged to know many ponds, tanks, rivers, bottles, pools, lakes, streams, buckets, waterfalls, quarries, tubs, mists, oceans, downpours, and puddles.
As children we delight in water. As we grow older, water also becomes the matrix for sport, relaxation, and romance.
My parents took me to the Caribbean as a small child. The photos from that trip seem so familiar that I can still feel the day: sitting on the beach next to the ocean, smiling in the Bahamian sun. I believe my happy memories of the sea were carried forward by those cherished, faded photographs.
Soon after that trip, prior to my third birthday, I had a vivid dream in anticipation of a celebration. At the party in my dream we all sat at a round table under the peach tree in my backyard in Westwood, New Jersey. Everyone received a gift. We were served tea, and at the bottom of the teacups were iron figurines. Somehow, we each became very small and the cups became enormous as we dove down to the bottom to find and retrieve our gift. My friend Steve got a race car. Rusty’s was a dog. Mine was a black bear standing on all four legs. I loved that dream—so much so that I tried to dream it again every night before going to sleep. And every time I saw a bear, or a cast-iron car or dog, or a cup of tea, I thought of my dream. That went on for months and then years, dreaming and daydreaming, and wanting to dream about diving into a teacup to retrieve an iron bear. I still have that dream.
At five years of age I became more curious about being adopted. Questions just seemed to lead to more questions and eventually a driven inquiry into the basics of human genetics. That same year I was afflicted with a severe case of spinal meningitis and hospitalized. It was then that I also became intimately familiar with—and curious about—my own nervous system. My adoptive mother was a nurse, and texts and manuals from nursing school days became the scriptures of my childhood. Science, exploration, medicine, and the existence of occupations related to helping people heal grew as a seed in my mind.
In high school, my favorite weekend activity was to push off the shore at night in a canoe with just a box of Pop-Tarts, a fishing pole, and Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. Fish or no fish, the solitude of night drifting was an epic escape.
A few years later, in college at DePauw University, I began to wonder more formally as a young student of science about why I liked water so much. Snorkeling in Bowman Pond on campus and scuba diving in Indiana’s quarries were somewhat unusual activities. Exploring the many creeks, rivers, and lakes of the Midwest, I also began to explore the human brain, somewhat by accident.
My sophomore year I was invited by the university chaplain to provide guitar lessons as a volunteer at a nursing home in town. I obliged and ended up spending Wednesday afternoons for eight months playing music with Barbara Daugherty, a woman who had lost her memory—including her ability to play guitar—in an automobile accident fifteen years prior, when she herself was a sophomore in college. The music lessons seemed to trigger long-lost memories, which, once flowing, often continued. The nurses were impressed. I was too, and curious. I’d return to campus and try to learn more about the brain–music connection from professors and journals, without much luck. These days a Google search would turn up endless publications on the topic, but in 1986 that wasn’t the case. This early brush with music therapy was logged deep in my memory.
At Duke University I explored wild rivers and the Outer Banks and studied economics, public policy, and decision science. But our science and policy texts were incapable of including the feeling of running a rapid, sitting at the bottom of a quarry, the physiology of retrieved memories and nostalgia, or the creative elixir of floating beneath the stars to Swan Lake.
After receiving a doctorate from the landlocked University of Arizona, I proposed to my wife, Dana, underwater off the coast of Cabo Pulmo, Mexico. I wordlessly slipped a sea-turtle-shaped ring onto her finger.
As parents of Grayce and Julia, our favorite moments together involve water.
After two decades working as a marine biologist studying sea turtles, the brain-on-water theme remained on my mind. In fact, curiosity about neuroscience often informed our approach to rebuilding sea turtle populations, one human at a time.
In 2009, the Pew Marine Fellows program generously nominated me for one of their annual awards, as they had a few years prior. The first time I had proposed a community-based sea turtle research project. This time I proposed looking into the science behind our emotional connection to water. I figured that if the pull of water could guide my life so far—as well as that of many, if not most, of my colleagues—those emotions might also be worth knowing more about.
As a non-neuroscientist I composed a rather good proposal about Blue Mind and submitted it to the foundation. The first round (sea turtles) I had been denied the fellowship because I was “too young.” This time the response was “too creative.” Despite these setbacks, both projects have moved forward, and I have greatly enjoyed the many collaborations and contributions that have come from them.
Now I am neither too young nor too creative, but I am patient, persistent, and truly enamored.
This book is the result of that mix: a life driven by a love of water, some patience and persistence, and a lot of collaboration and conversation with fellow water lovers and scientists, a truly excellent group of people.
Near the end of The Ocean of Life, marine biologist Callum Roberts’s thorough and insightful treatment of the history of ocean use and overuse, he describes some of the fundamental ingredients needed for fixing what’s broken on our blue planet: “It is essential for ocean life and our own that we transform ourselves from being a species that uses up its resources to one that cherishes and nurtures them.”
The same can be said for our planet’s lakes, rivers, and wetlands, as well as its forests and prairies.
But if this is the emotional foundation of our future, insights into what it means to cherish and nurture could be useful indeed. How do these Blue-Minded emotions work? What are they made of, and how do we make more? Those are some of the fundamental questions of neuroconservation.
Roberts continues, “People have a deep emotional connection to the sea. The oceans inspire, thrill, and soothe us. Some think we owe our clever brains and the success they brought to our ancestors’ close link to the sea. But our relationship with the sea stretches back through time much further than this: all the way to the origins of life itself. We are creatures of the ocean.”
Clearly, creating more protection and restoration will require that we better appreciate and understand the science behind, and what goes into, the mysterious elixir called inspiration, the chemistry of thrill, and the main ingredient found in soothe.
Combined with pinches of empathy, nostalgia, responsibility, gratitude, and a big scoop of love for our waters, we have a fighting chance to get this right.
You have to do it because you can’t stand not to. That’s the best reason to do anything.
Truth be known, I tried my hardest to give this project away to those with better training, better brains, better résumés for the job. There were no takers. So, I built upon what I have learned about people and water from my teachers: Herman Melville, Joshua Slocum, Chuy Lucero, Don Thomson, Loren Eiseley, Jacques Cousteau, Pak Lahanie, Wade Hazel, Pablo Neruda, Juan de la Cruz Villalejos, Sylvia Earle, Mike Orbach, Cecil Schwalbe, and Mary Oliver.
Mostly, we’ve connected the dots that we could find and worked to make the best sense of the patterns that emerged. The goal has been less about providing absolute answers and more about asking new questions—questions that, hopefully, in your capable hands, lead to creative new ways of exploring living well together on our water planet.
Back in 2005, the late author David Foster Wallace opened his commencement speech at Kenyon College with a story about three fish: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’ ”
That’s the fundamental question that started my own journey. What is water? Why are we humans so enthralled by it? And why is this question so obvious and important, yet so hard to adequately answer?
Later in his speech, Wallace told the graduating class that education should be based on simple awareness: “Awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water.’ ”
This book is an attempt to begin a conversation about water based on new questions and current research. I hope to bring to our simple awareness the reality and essence—and beauty—of this small blue marble we live, move, and love upon.
Even though it’s hidden in plain sight.
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