You’d be hard-pressed to find another book that starts with an image of the author jumping off a pier, fitted with a waterproof cap covered in electrodes, ready to get a rare snapshot of the human brain on water. Blue Mind is the brainchild of Wallace J. Nichols, PhD, a marine biologist, ocean advocate, and Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences. Several years ago, Blue Mind started out as a summit bringing together ocean scientists, brain scientists, tech experts, and ocean advocates. Now, Blue Mind is a book about the brain on water and it’s climbing the New York Times Best Seller list. As waterpeople, you should know about Blue Mind.
As a neuroscientist, I’m trained to read journal articles and books with a hard-nosed, fine-tooth comb in order to poke holes in the arguments and details of scientific pieces. And even with that mindset, I can say that Nichols is gutsy and brilliant. Summarizing how functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) works in a little over four pages — in layperson’s terms no less — is something that most neuroscientists wouldn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, attempt. That’s like asking someone who’s only surfed for two weeks in their life to paddle out at double-overhead OB and get barreled. Yet Nichols gets barreled and he does it better than most brain experts I’ve seen, heard, or read. The utility of what Nichols does is that he connects the dots for us across research fields, making connections between the latest neuroscience research and recent findings in ecology, marine biology, psychology, and even eco-psychology. And the great part is: it’s not all science. Peppered throughout the book are personal stories about his own water experiences, as well as linkages to philosophy, poetry, and, of course, surfing.
In Blue Mind, Nichols takes us through why all humans seem to have a connection with water, whether they know it or not. Specifically, he speaks to the idea that we are born with an innate association between water and life.
Our brains instinctually know this even if we consciously do not.
He takes us through how this association not only improves the life of the mind, but can even heal aspects of the mind as well: he offers examples of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression (which he refers to as the “Gray Mind”), addiction, and autism, which all have been shown to be helped by access to water. Nichols goes even further to explain how this association can make us feel more attentive, creative, and connected as people. This positive association with water is not just triggered by being submerged in the water. It can also be triggered by the sights, sounds, and texture of water, activating what he calls our “Blue Minds,” which takes us to a positive mental state we associate with being in the water even though we are on land.
Nichols also gives the reader insight into what’s going on in the brain during different experiences in the water. For example, he talks about how our amygdala triggers our “Red Mind,” which is a state that would make us paddle to shore as fast as possible the first time we saw a dorsal fin near us in the water. Or how the firing of our neural circuitry associated with reward, stochastically moves us as we ride waves and how that neural cascade actually slows down time, which makes us experience that euphoric feeling of being “in the flow.” All the while, Nichols’ voice is confident and humbling. It’s clear his goal is to educate and to share his love for the water with the world. That alone would keep you turning pages, but the evidence he provides and the story he weaves will surely keep your eyes, brains, and fingers occupied.
The fundamental question addressed in Blue Mind, according to Nichols is: “What happens when our most complex organ — the brain — meets the planet’s largest feature — water?” Nichols more than adequately answers this question and presents his claims in a way that I don’t think any other writer or scientist could, by including something for each type of reader. If you want to read about the latest in neuroscience research such as default mode networks, it’s in there. If you want to read about water and emotions, it’s in there. If you want to read about ocean advocacy, it’s in there. If you want to read about why you will pay more for waterfront property (and what in your brain is telling you to do so), it’s in there. If you even want to know why water is bad for some people, it’s in there too (albeit less so).
Blue Mind is the type of book with so much rich, diverse content that you could come back to it again and again and learn something new that you may have missed on the first read. And that’s appropriate since that’s what keeps us all coming back to the ocean each and every time — to get our blue on in a slightly different way than we did in our prior session. So go ahead, jump in, and learn about your own Blue Mind.
Get a hard copy ($27) or digital version of Blue Mind from WallaceJNichols.org.