Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols believes oceanic environments actually produce neurological benefits that aid in such things as mood elevation, stress reduction, and better memory, among others. Good news for surfers. Photo: Smolowe

Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols believes oceanic environments actually produce neurological benefits that aid in such things as mood elevation, stress reduction, and better memory, among others. Good news for surfers. Photo: Smolowe


The Inertia

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.


  • Andy French

    Great article.  J Nichols is certainly on the fore-front of progress in a number of different disciplines and, to be cliche, a true renaissance man.  However, as soothing as the sea shores are, Nichols’ theories (if they can be called that) are certainly not groundbreaking nor held to simply the ocean.  
    In 2005 child advocate and author, Richard Louv, wrote the National best seller, Last Child in the Woods.  In the book he coined the phrase Nature Deficit Disorder and started a monumental international campaign of No Child Left Inside.  He has since published, The Nature Principle, which is steadily gaining acclaim as well.  Both of these books go deep into our natural, biological, neurological, psychological, etc connection with natural environments.  By citing a growing body of research throughout both books he shows how people today are losing touch with nature and it is affecting our health and well being.  

    Louv’s books are pretty in line with everything Nichols has to say in his Ocean-Neurobio initiative and if you’re looking for a book or two to throw on your list, I’d recommend those two.

  • Wallace J Nichols

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts. A quick update: we took the ocean into the
    Neuroscience lab last week, and will continue aftrr the holidays, extending efforts into the “field”. Results will be shared at BLUEMIND 2 in 2012.

    I’m a big fan of Richard Louv’s. As well as many of the neuroscientists working on intriguing research.

    Just haven’t come across much on the ocean, which is surprising considering its dominance on planet “Earth” and the large number of humans living along the world’s coasts.

    Hoping to share some of our new findings soon,

    J

    • Andy French

      I’m equally surprised at how lacking the body of work on marine related topics in this area are as well.  I mean, throughout history mankind has been inexorably linked to the ocean for growing, developing, and prospering.  You would think that would heavily influence our brains affinity towards it and maybe even wiring to it.  

      I work with an organization that brings ~100k kids every year down to, in, and around the ocean as a learning environment.  It’s absolutely amazing that some, even ones who live within miles of the coast, have NEVER seen the ocean before.  The looks on their faces and responses from their experience are unbeatable.

      I’m glad you’re working to close this gap J and look forward to following all your progress.  What’s the best way to follow research projects/updates until the next BLUEMIND 2?

      Thanks,
      Andy

      • http://www.wallacejnichols.org Wallace J. Nichols

        Andy,

        I’d love to learn more about your work, and how we might be able to collaborate. Understanding the cognitive activity behind the “looks” on the kids faces when they experience the ocean for the first time COULD provide some useful insights.

        I’ll share info on BLUEMIND2 as it comes together.

        best to connect via social media (fb, twitter) as well as email: wallacejnichols@@me:disqus .com

        J

  • Tom G.

    I’d like to thank everyone for their comments. I’m glad people find Dr. Nichols’s research as interesting as I do.
     
    And, of course, a big thanks goes to Dr. Nichols for chiming in! I hope I represented your research honestly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/DomStone Dominic Stone

    Love this idea. I think there’s definitely something to it and I’m excited to see where the research is going. Thanks for sharing!