The Outside Blog

Politics : Nature

How Water Makes Us Healthier, Happier, and More Successful

This month, California biologist and former Outside cover subject Wallace J. Nichols publishes his first book, 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 (Little, Brown, $27).

Billed as a “Big Idea” book that will change the way you think, Nichols’s debut effort combines everything from neuroscience to real estate pricing. (A full review is available in the August issue.) Abe Streep caught up with Nichols to discuss the book and how water can impact human happiness.

OUTSIDE: In the book you’re breaking down very complex science. You’re also combining anecdotal reporting throughout the world, real estate prices, and how-to journalism, suggesting ways in which people can improve their lives. What was the process of putting it together like?
NICHOLS: I read a book somewhere that said that writing a book is like creating a sculpture. This felt like creating a sculpture from water. As you mention, it’s writing a book about the brain, which is the most complex thing we know in the universe, and water, which produces life in the universe, and combining those two things—well, it’s a broad topic to say the least. I wrote the title as a placeholder and its subtitle as an outline. Then it was just about going out and finding the best researchers and some great protagonists. And making sure that they were not all surfers. Although, of course, there are several. 

In the book you constantly refer to the ocean as a great healer for many societal ills. How? 
The big conversation is the “red mind” vs. “blue mind” comparison. We live our indoor lives and our workspace lives and our family lives often in what I call a “red-mind” mode. We’re overstimulated, we’re captivated, we’re connected, we’re stressed. We’re behind. We’re trying to catch up. We’re out of money. We’re at deadlines. And we’re surrounded by screams.

Stress isn’t new, but this kind of chronic, constant stress is. Every medical doctor knows that stress is connected to disease. Diseases are exacerbated or caused by stress. So reducing that stress in some way is useful. There are a lot of conversations going around about different kinds of meditation. Sometimes the word meditation isn’t used—different relaxation techniques.

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Athletes use them all the time to reach peak performance. And I’d just add that being by water meditates you. It puts you in that relaxed state. You don’t need to study or practice meditation. You just need to pay attention to the water around you. You can do it in the bathtub, the hot tub, the swimming pool, the creek, the lake, the river, the ocean.

When you unplug and let go, disconnect from a clock altogether, you do what neuroscientists call mind wandering. Rather than data crunching, you’re letting things come and connect. You’re letting innovation happen. We see over and over, people say, ‘This is where I get my best ideas—when I let my brain do that.’ And a lot of times there’s water involved.

You run an annual Blue Mind conference, in which you bring together conservationists, water advocates, and neuroscientists to discuss the ocean’s effect on the brain. How is it working? Do you meet skepticism among the scientific community?
Social neuroscience continues to expand. Neuromarketing is now happening. Executives at Google are having neuroscientists come in and teach them how to be innovative. The greatest source of happiness, of relaxation, [and] of mental stimulation is the outdoors. And we’re still behind. There are people looking into it, through brain-on-nature questions.

But we’re late to the game. There’s a conference I attend every year on neuroscience and music. It’s the eighth year of that conference. There’s Blue Mind, but there’s not an equivalent gathering of neuroscientists and people who are interested in the future of wild places. I still don’t get the buy-in from the ocean community. I think part of it is neuroscience is just a big, hairy difficult, intellectually challenging field. And some people just don’t like to say ‘I don’t understand.’ Instead of saying, ‘I don’t understand,’ they just kind of roll their eyes.

You’re organizing a conference, publishing a book. You have to talk to people like me. How do you create the time to meander in your own life?
I’m certainly not the guru on the rock on the top of the mountain saying, ‘Here’s how you do it, I’ve got this nailed.’ I’m living the red-mind, blue-mind roller coaster right along with the people who will read this book. I benefit greatly from being by the ocean and living next to a creek. It’s called Mill Creek. I hear it every morning, and I go to sleep to its sound every night. What I’ve learned is to pay attention to that. It’s a creek, it’s beautiful. You see the fish come up the creek after a rain. You know that in a few hours the creek is emptying into the Pacific Ocean. All those things you pay attention to. 

Did one anecdote from your reporting surprise you particularly?
I can hang it all on one story. This guy named Bobby Lane, who served in the Gulf, had three different traumatic brain injury episodes. He came back to Texas with his world upside down. He was not speaking clearly, suffering from post-traumatic stress, being overmedicated, becoming addicted to those medications. He lost the desire to live. He tried to commit suicide through what he called “death by cop.” Which is essentially when you do something that gets the cop to come and kill you. Because as a warrior, he said he couldn’t do it himself.

So he tried that, and they shot him with rubber bullets, which really pissed him off, and really hurt, and really messed him up. He ended up going and doing something called Operation Surf, an experimental fringe program for people like him [in Santa Cruz]. He came to Santa Cruz and he had an experience: three tries and he was standing up on his board. Then he saw his life ahead. After having the experience he decided that he wanted to stay around and to live. 

What’s next for Blue Mind?
The goal is to increase perceived value of healthy oceans and waterways. If realtors were to knowledgeably and consciously sell the cognitive and emotional benefits of water, they would become the front line communicators for healthy water.

If health practitioners are saying, ‘I’m prescribing a walk on the beach and a surf session and half the dose of those pills,’ they’re sharing the blue-mind message. That’s the idea. What the environmental movement typically does is say, ‘Here’s something you’re doing that you shouldn’t do. I’m going to tell you why and probably make you feel bad.’ That’s not always the best place to start a conversation. We’re [saying], ‘Here’s something about you that you should know that you don’t know.’

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Rwanda's Mountain-Misted Jungle Paradise

For fans of extra-large primates, there’s arguably no more coveted experience than viewing a mountain gorilla in its natural habitat. If you fall into this camp, consider a bucket-list trek to the upscale Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge in Rwanda’s northwest Volcanoes National Park—a mountainous, jungle-covered area made famous by the late naturalist Dian Fossey and her mountain gorilla pals.

Today, Rwanda is home to about 400 of the endangered apes, with another 400 to 600 spread between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/sabtinto-rwanda-national-park_fe.jpg","caption":"Volcanoes National Park is home to five of the eight Virunga Mountain volcanoes."}%}

Sabyinyo’s eight stone cottages sit in the foothills of the Virunga Mountain range and just two miles from park headquarters. Each is decked out with a terracotta roof, fireplace, a spa-like bathroom, and sheltered veranda. You’ll find a restaurant and lounge in the main lodge, as well as an information center and small shop. In case you’re concerned about where your Rwandan francs are going, know that Sabyinyo isn’t just some fancy pet project for outsider investors. The lodge is owned by an area community trust that funnels some of its profits into local conservation and socioeconomic initiatives.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/sabyinyo-rwanda-bedroom-cottage_fe.jpg","caption":"Relax on a private sheltered veranda after a day of exploring the bamboo-covered rainforest."}%}

The Details: Sabyinyo is a two-hour drive from the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Room rates vary depending on the season—right now, they range from $775 to $970 per person per night. Only 80 visitors per day are allowed in the park, so make your reservation early and be prepared to buy a $750 permit for the gorilla hike.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/sabyinyo-living-room-cottage-rwanda_fe.jpg","caption":"The cottages of Sabyinyo provide guests with quiet luxury."}%}

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The Last of the Desert Dwellers

Namibia, some would say, is an African country that actually gets wildlife conservation. So much so that a conservation mandate is actually written into its constitution. Which makes it all the more perplexing why the Namibian government has issued permits to hunt its iconic desert elephants. 

That policy has certainly sparked a lot of Internet outrage. There's a campaign on Facebook devoted to saving the elephants, and a recent entry expounds on the killing of a 17-year-old bull named Delta, apparently the first elephant shot because of the permits: 

“Delta was killed close to his family, and a short distance from a school, where there had been peaceful co-existence between humans and animals for some time.” 

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/namibia-desert-elephants-mom-baby_fe.jpg","caption":"Desert elephants can now only be found in Namibia and Mali."}%}

The furor is predominantly based on the fact that only 100 of these animals remain in Nambia, according to Laura Brown, a scientist and the director of Desert Lion and Elephant Conservation. And since word broke about the permits, there have been conflicting news reports, allegations of government secrecy, and suggestions—and counter-claims—that the permits were issued in exchange for political votes. So what’s really going on?

The answer is murky, but it starts with how Namibia manages wildlife. In 1996, the Nature Conservation Amendment Act spawned the formation of conservancies, which essentially gave rural communities consumptive and non-consumptive rights to wildlife. There are 79 conservancies, with 240,000 people living in them.

According to Colgar Silkopo, Director of Regional Services and Parks Management at Namibia’s Ministry of Environment Tourism, permit allocations for wildlife occur at the beginning of each year. This year, MET allotted nine elephant hunting permits to six local conservancies in the Kunene and Erongo regions in the northwest—areas where the desert elephants live. 

Seven of these permits are trophy-hunting permits. And the other two are “own use, which means, they can be used for meat,” explain Silkopo. However, these “non- trophy animals can be hunted by the conservancies themselves or a professional hunter or company they have a contract with.”

But is this actually antithetical to Namibia’s conservation ethos? Like most things about elephants in Africa, it depends on whom you talk to.

Dr. Margaret Jacobsohn is a trustee at Namibia’s Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) and a Namibian anthropologist who has been working in community based conservation for three decades.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/namibia-desert-elephants-three_fe.jpg","caption":"Desert dwellers were once more widespread across Africa, until hunting in the 1980's caused numbers to plummet."}%}

She recently wrote an opinion piece for Africa Geographic stating she’s against any elephant hunting, but says that doesn’t mean there’s an irony at play: “No, there’s no irony here. The irony is not in the trophy hunting. Rather, it is that the public—those who do not live with wildlife—is attacking the country with one of the best conservation records in all of Africa.”

CJ Carrington, a South African freelance writer who wrote about the controversy for the organization Conservation Action Trust, says she does find Namibia’s actions antithetical to its conservation mandate, especially because she believes the government has tried to keep the permits on the down-low. “Attempting to keep it secret and then scurrying to provide flimsy excuses—these are not the actions of an institution with nothing to hide.”

What is clear is that the whole concept of wildlife conservation in Africa is altogether complicated. “Listen,” says, Brown, who has been closely studying some 70 of the remaining desert-dwelling elephants for nearly a decade, “there are many different ways African nations maintain wildlife. Some governments throw all the animals into a national park and keep the people out. Some don’t have national parks and all the wildlife is gone. And Namibia has an in-between, where you have these conservancies where people decide the use of the wildlife.” 

Brown makes a point of explaining that hunting isn’t new in Namibia, just all the sudden attention to it. “Hunting has always been allowed in Namibia. It is always been able to issue permits to hunting. It just hasn’t been highly talked about. In fact, Namibia has been very much ignored [in the conversation about Africa’s elephants] until very recently.”

Brown says that eventually, her organization would like to see people deter elephants with non-lethal means. “That is something we are working towards. “But at this point,” she adds, “the country just isn’t there, yet.”

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Your Travel Photos Are Helping Rhino Poachers

Seeing a rhino in the wild is one of Africa’s quintessential safari experiences and a lump-in-your-throat moment for those lucky enough to realize the dream. This is what you came to the continent for, right? 

Maybe you’ll zoom in with your SLR camera and snap some great shots that you’ll edit later and share online with friends. Or perhaps you’ll take quick pics on your cell phone and post on Facebook or Instagram within minutes.

Either way, what you might not realize is that the second you share that photo online, you could be helping a rhino poacher find his next victim.

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Finding Rhinos

The Hospitality Association of Namibia recently posted a photo on its Facebook page of a sign hanging in a safari vehicle that reads: "Please be careful when sharing photos on social media. They can lead poachers to our rhino. Turn off the geotag function and do not disclose where the photo was taken."

Geotagging is the process of automatically including geographic information in cell phone pictures. When you share your photos with others, the information is embedded within the photograph, and anyone with access to the Internet can extract that data from your picture.

Plug the longitude and latitude into Google Maps, for example, and you could discover the exact spot where the photo was shot, give or take a few feet. Combine that with the fact that rhinos are very sedentary and often hang out in the same general area for days at a stretch, and you have a potentially serious situation.

"If you’ve got a fresh GPS coordinate for a rhino—or you know where it’s going to water every night—it’s very easy to quickly find and poach it," explains Chris Weaver, director of the Namibia program for World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Rhino poaching has dominated the news recently, as the number of endangered animals killed over the past few years has risen astronomically—all in an effort to sell the horns of the prehistoric mammals. Some believers of traditional Asian medicine think pulverized rhino horn will cure strokes, convulsions and fevers, among other ailments.

Though there is no scientific proof of such medicinal value, rhino horn is nonetheless highly prized—so much so that a single rhino horn can fetch $250,000 on the black market.

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Faux Tourists

As more and more of the endangered rhinos are killed, conservationists and government officials in some parts of Africa have become extremely protective. In fact, they try not to discuss the animals publicly anymore.

"While Namibia would love to boast about its success with relocation of protected species into private parks and the growth of its rhino population and rhino tracking activities, unfortunately such positive news may draw poachers to our area," said Gitta Paetzold, CEO of the Hospitality Association of Namibia. To combat this, several organizations have started educating travelers about how poachers can pluck GPS coordinates off photos that tourists post on social media sites.

Poachers can also examine your photos and identify markers in the background, such as a particular grove of trees or a mountain peak. And some illegal hunters even pose as tourists, going on guided expeditions on game farms or in national parks. The first time this happened, in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, two men killed a pair of white rhinos. The men were later arrested. It’s even happened in India, where poachers killed a pair of one-horned rhinos in Kaziranga National Park.

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Guides, of course, lead their visitors right to where the rhinos are, and the faux tourists may then snap photos without raising any suspicions. Would-be poachers or informants can then send a photo with a location tag to anyone or return to the spot later to seek out the rhino.

Weaver was recently exploring the Namibian desert with some guests when he came across a group of tourists who took an unusual interest in two white rhinos. They snapped more than the typical number of photos of the animals with their cell phones and spent more time with them than Weaver has observed during his 20 years working in Namibia.

"I’m thinking, how would a person know that they’re not just forwarding these photos on to China or Vietnam and saying ‘How much will you pay for information on this rhino?’" Weaver said. "Pass that on, and five minutes later, you’ll have an answer back: ‘I’ll give you X amount for that set of horns."

It’s not a far-fetched proposition. In South Africa, for example, officials have become more vigilant about rhino tourism, documenting the names and visits of tourists. Weaver said he’s even heard of some spots where cell phones are forbidden on safari vehicles.

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How You Can Help

Although visitor photos may inadvertently help poachers on occasion, there is a silver lining: travelers can actually be a huge aid to rhino conservation efforts, especially in Namibia where tour operators work with community members who value wildlife and work tirelessly to protect it.

"You as a tourist are actually making a difference," WWF’s Weaver says, explaining that a portion of tour payments go toward community conservation efforts. "Your tourist dollars create long-term incentives for people to set aside habitat for wildlife and live with wildlife."

To ensure you’re not aiding poachers with your travel photos:

  • Disable the geotag function in the settings section of any smartphone you use to take photos.
  • Strip off the location data on photos previously shot.
  • Be mindful of privacy settings on social media sites. if posting photos of rhinos, only share them with trusted contacts.
  • Pay attention to fellow tourists. If you see someone acting out of the ordinary or hear a few too many questions about where rhinos are and how long they’ll stay there, alert national park staff or your guide. That person could be a poacher informant.
  • Be wary of sharing too much information with overly interested people, such as taxi drivers or hotel staff. If a line of questioning gets too detailed about the location of an animal you saw that day, answer vaguely.

Learn more about what WWF is doing to stop rhino poaching.

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