For many people – surfers and non-surfers alike – the experience of standing on the shore and gazing out at the ocean is deeply satisfying. There is something uniquely calming and contemplative about an ocean vista – something that touches us on an emotional level, but is nonetheless difficult to put into words, or even fully understand.
That, however, is precisely what one researcher is trying to do. A recent article in Outside Magazine details how marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols believes that humans have an inherent, deep-seated “need” for aquatic environments – like oceans. He argues that this need is not only psychological and aesthetic but may, in fact, be biological as well. He contends that our minds are linked to the oceans in a still little understood but fundamental way, and that contemplation of oceanic environments actually produces neurological benefits that aid in such things as mood elevation, stress reduction, increased concentration, and better memory, among others.
Nichols’s thesis is controversial, to be sure, but for surfers at least it does have a certain resonance. As individuals who spend a lot of time – some would say an inordinate amount of time – in the ocean, and derive an immense satisfaction from their aquatic activities, the idea that the ocean produces intangible but significant benefits is likely to elicit an ear-to-ear smile and vigorous nod of agreement. In fact, many surfers know from their own personal experiences that nothing is a better mood elevator than a good surf session. I know from my own years spent in the ocean that a day of surfing produces what can only be described – when all other descriptions fail – as a sense of deep satisfaction, and even joy. Often I don’t even need to catch a lot of waves; the simple fact of being in the ocean, of immersing myself in the water and breathing salty air into my lungs, is enough to satisfy me.
Over the years, some surfers have attempted to describe these feelings. Because such feelings are often so overwhelmingly emotional, however, these descriptions are frequently couched in religious or quasi-religious terms. Paul Holmes, the former editor of Surfing Magazine, once wrote that, “Surfing generates in its participants an almost religious awe for the beauty and energy of waves, and of the sea that gives birth to these mysterious forces of nature.” One of the first surfers to consciously acknowledge that surfing could be akin to a religious experience was Tom Blake, the iconoclastic pioneer surfer, board manufacturer, and all-around waterman. He believed that surfing was a high calling, one that could teach humans about spirituality and nature, and what he believed to be the connection between the two. Blake may not have understood all the cognitive neuroscience of Nichols’ thesis, given the era in which he lived, but he would have undoubtedly agreed with its basic premise.
So, Nichols’ unorthodox thesis is likely to get applause and kudos from many surfers. But is it valid? Do all these surfer anecdotes – and the experiences of many non-surfers – actually amount to anything scientifically concrete? To anything that can be measured and analyzed? Does the mere presence of the ocean actually have a significant and therapeutic effect on brain neurochemistry? The honest answer at this point is: Who know? Until empirical tests are generated – something Nichols would like to see done – we’ll all have to wait and see. And even if his thesis turns out to be invalid, there is still something fundamentally transcendental about the human reaction to the ocean that can’t be denied – or, apparently, adequately explained.
What is perhaps most intriguing to me is the larger question all this speculation brings up, namely, the role of nature in human life. Do human minds stand outside the natural order, or are they an integral part of it? Some philosophies and religions tell us that nature is external to us – it is something to be conquered and/or tamed. Others that we are an intrinsic part of nature, and that we can’t live a satisfying life without it. The Chinese mystic Lao-Tzu wrote, “Live a simple life, be free, be yourself, and be close to nature. Do these things and you will be wise and happy.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous American Transcendentalist, believed that humans were “embosomed” by nature and that its currents “stream around and through us.” In his essay Nature, he wrote that “in the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through…man,”….its “effect like that of a higher thought or a better emotion.”
Some of my own experiences with nature – whether I’m hiking in the high Sierras or surfing a reef break north of Santa Cruz – often involve strong emotional feelings that I find deeply profound. Yet I am frequently unable to put these feelings into words. It often seems as if I am tapping into some source – something larger than myself – that can only be felt on an intuitive level, but not intellectualized.
Nichols’s contention that the human mind is linked somehow to the ocean – and by extension to nature – is actually not too far off from what many religious mystics and sages have long said, albeit shorn of all the neuroscience. From Buddha to Lao-Tzu to Meister Eckhart, many mystics have argued that the human mind and nature are of the same essence, one simply an extension of the other. In some of the more esoteric traditions of Hinduism, for example, deepest reality (Brahman) is identical to the highest self (Atman). In the Buddhist tradition, similarly, it is taught that enlightenment exposes the adherent to the perception that nothing exists by itself; that everything at the highest level of reality is a cohesive whole, a unity – indeed, that everything is a part of everything else. Pantheists – Spinoza and Albert Einstein among them – have long espoused this view.
This is admittedly a difficult concept to fathom, and one that would be relatively easy to dismiss as New Age hokum if not for its ubiquity cross-culturally and its appearance in many different religions. From Buddhism and Hinduism to Christianity to Islam (among others), the mystical experience of oneness is a pervasive concept. The seeds of this idea are perhaps even evident in modern physics, especially quantum mechanics, where one interpretation of the famous “double-slit experiment” seems to imply that the very act of observing sub-atomic particles (such as electrons) influences not only their trajectory and patterning but also the very substance of which they are composed (i.e., wave/particle duality).
Of course, it’s easy to get carried away by all this, to jump to conclusions probably never intended by Nichols nor encompassed within the empirical boundaries of his research. Still, Nichols’ ideas are exciting, and although he no doubt has an uphill battle in validating them scientifically, the implications for other areas of research – and perhaps even the foundations of our metaphysics – are manifold. Hopefully his research will continue, and maybe we’ll be a step closer to unraveling the mystery of mind and nature, and the still little understood connection between the two.