The first book from my list I was able to get my hands on was Blue Mind: the Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. By a happy coincidence, Blue Mind was a great place to start my self-guided academic project. The main assertion of the book describes what author Dr. Wallace “J” Nichols, calls the “Blue Mind” phenomenon, which states that for various evolutionary reasons, humans are predisposed to me more relaxed, better focused, and mentally and emotionally healthier on, in, or near water, especially our oceans.
Nichols explains the neuroscience of his theory using clear, plain English and well-developed analogies, but he also includes a comprehensive bibliography to back up his claims, as well as to guide further reading on the subject.
Though the science behind Nichols’ claims seems to be sound, there are times, especially toward the beginning of the book, when it feels a bit like the entire “Blue Mind” mentality exists to justify spending time surfing, swimming, paddling, and fishing. To a hopelessly land-locked water-child in a land where any water that’s not moving dangerously fast has been frozen solid for a month, the notion that all of your biggest personal demons can be kept at bay by simply taking some down-time in, on, or near the water to fire up the right neurons and re-balance the chemical cocktail in your brain was a little frustrating.
Though I found Nichols’ descriptions of all the wonderful ways people interact with the water long-winded, I have to admit that any reader would be hard-pressed not to find a scenario that resonates with some formative memory and inspires powerful nostalgia for a happy time near the water. The book reminds us that on some level, we can all benefit from a closer relationship with water, nature, and a more mindful version of ourselves. It explains in a very compelling and scientific way why humans generally can’t help but love the water, and in the words of Jacques Cousteau, inspires readers to “Protect what they love.”
“We can’t continue to inundate people with negative information as we try to change their minds about things like ‘sustainability’… Social science research has demonstrated that new information can cause people to be even more entrenched in their beliefs… the problem based approach isn’t working. Assaulting people with information doesn’t work either. We need to do something different.”
Despite any criticism, Nichols’ approach to conservation is, I believe, where the real power of the Blue Mind lies: “We can’t continue to inundate people with negative information as we try to change their minds about things like ‘sustainability’… Social science research has demonstrated that new information can cause people to be even more entrenched in their beliefs… the problem based approach isn’t working. Assaulting people with information doesn’t work either. We need to do something different.”
What should we do differently? Simply “tell the story of water.” Tell it in a way that kindles the connection that many of us already share with the natural spaces around us and inspires us to protect them.
I’m in no way qualified to comment on Nichols’ science and hope to revisit the end-notes later in my project, but Blue Mind was without a doubt the perfect place to start. Especially over the past few years, my relationship with the water has become strained at best, to the point where I had begun consciously closing myself off from it: making excuses to avoid swimming, staying away from the lake, watching television or staring at the paint on the wall instead of walking to the river, the proximity of which was one of the main reasons my husband and I chose our apartment. It’s not that my affinity for blue has diminished as I’ve aged; being close to the water just served increasingly as a reminder of the paths I’ve not taken, and how dry the road I’ve been on has often been. The times when I find myself looking out over the water, my mind magnifies the distance between where I’m standing and where I want to be, until it seems insurmountable. But, as Nichols quotes from Michael J. Fox’s description of the seaside epiphany that inspired him to leave Spin City and launch his foundation for Parkinson’s research, when you’re faced with a personal challenge, “You don’t have to withdraw.” Nichols continues in his own words, “You don’t have to stay on the shore once you know you’re standing on the shore” (183).
Although it was a chilly -10 C and snowing, when I finished Blue Mind, I pulled on my coat and boots and went for a long walk by the river. I didn’t have any epiphanies of my own, but I came back feeling a bit more optimistic about 2018. These are the first steps of my journey back to the water, and although I ‘m not sure exactly where I’m headed, I know without a doubt that I’m going in the right direction.