During one lecture at Stanford, Nichols implored graduate students to remember that, as conservation- ists, "we have the power of happiness on our side."
THE PHILIPPINE coral reef tank inside the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco is 25 feet deep and holds 212,000 gallons of water, making it one of the largest exhibits of living coral anywhere in the world. It is the centerpiece of the academy’s Steinhart Aquarium and hosts hundreds of coral species, a couple thousand colorful fish, plus sharks, stingrays, and numerous smaller creatures, like sea anemones and snails. There are five windows affording looks inside, the biggest of which, at 16 and a half feet tall and almost 30 feet wide, makes a sweeping arc in front of a dimly lit standing area backed by several rows of benches. It was designed to offer visitors a panoramic, theater-like view of life in the tank and is among the museum’s most popular attractions. It’s Wallace J. Nichols’s favorite spot in the building.
Nichols, 44, is a biologist and research associate at the academy who made a name for himself in the mid-1990s when he tracked a loggerhead turtle that swam from Baja, Mexico, to Japan, the first time anyone had recorded an animal swimming an entire ocean. He has done fieldwork in waters around the globe and spends most of his waking hours thinking and talking about the ocean, but when he’s in front of that big window at the aquarium, he doesn’t watch the fish. He watches the people.
“Whether it’s a 92-year-old or a two-year-old, when they come into that blue space, something happens,” Nichols says. They grow quiet and calm, but there’s more to it than that. When couples walk in, they frequently start holding hands. He says that if you ask people here what they’re feeling, they’ll struggle for words. Nichols finds this fascinating. He also believes that if we can understand what really happens to us in the presence of the ocean—which brain processes underlie our emotional reactions—it could bring about a radical shift in conservation efforts. If we learn precisely why we love the ocean, his thinking goes, we’ll have an immensely powerful new tool to protect it.
Not surprisingly, this theory can strike many of his peers as soft. “ ‘You must be from California.’ That’s the first response,” Nichols says. (He lives north of Santa Cruz, though he was raised in New Jersey.) But Nichols’s credibility as a scientist, along with his charm and passion, have enabled him to rally excitement for his ideas among a diverse constituency of researchers and activists. In the past couple of years, he’s become a sought-after speaker, giving dozens of presentations at a wide mix of venues, from TEDx to adventure-travel trade shows to environmental symposiums. His pitch: More data on rising sea temperatures or plastic pollution or disappearing creatures won’t do anything for ocean conservation. Instead, we need to study our own minds.
Nichols envisions cognitive neuroscientists constructing detailed models of brain activity for experiences like sitting on a beach, then using their findings to drive public policy. “If I walk into a meeting of a coastal zoning commission and say, ‘I think people listening to the ocean is good for them,’ you’d see all the eyeballs in the room rolling,” says Nichols. “But if I walk in and say, ‘This is my friend the Stanford neuroscientist, and his research using brain scans shows that sitting by the ocean has the same calming effects as meditation on reducing stress,’ suddenly access to the coast becomes a public-health issue.”
It’s a viable fantasy that derives from the fact that Nichols himself isn’t a neuroscientist. Unable to test his hypotheses, he’s launched a campaign to create a new field of study he calls neuro-conservation. His hope is to inspire cognitive scientists to examine these fundamental questions. As he sees it, it’s a ripe invitation: Who wants to know what happens when our most complex organ meets the planet’s largest feature?
“My role is to be the catalyst and cheerleader,” he says. “But the question is, How do you turn this big idea into a movement?”
THE FIRST time I met Nichols, he gave me a blue marble. It was sort of awkward. “Hold it at arm’s length,” he said. “That’s what the Earth looks like from a million miles away—a water planet. Now hold it up to your eye and look at the sun. If water were inside, it would contain virtually every element. Now think of someone who’s doing good work for the ocean. Hold it to your heart: think of how it would feel to you and to them if you randomly gave them this marble as a way of saying thank you.”