The Touchy-Feely (But Totally Scientific!) Methods Of Wallace J. Nichols

How does a visionary marine biologist convince brain researchers to help him revolutionize ocean conservation? With lots of hugs, a million blue marbles, and one very unorthodox conference.

Wallace J. Nichols

Wallace J. Nichols     Photo: Jeff Lipsky

Wallace J. Nichols

Wallace J. Nichols

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.”

We were seated outside the Academy of Sciences on a late-winter afternoon. Nichols, who goes by J., was dressed in a casual button-down blue shirt, brown cords, and leather boots and wearing a perfectly manicured salt-and-pepper stubble beard. He looked directly into my eyes, speaking in a slow, even canter that was mildly hypnotic, the vestige of a stutter he overcame 25 years ago by forcing himself to make turtle presentations to school groups.

The marble shtick may have made me uncomfortable, but the last line stuck with me; I imagined myself giving the marble to an old friend. Turns out I’m not the only one to fall under this spell. Nichols tried it out for the first time in 2009, during a talk at the New England Aquarium in Boston, and the audience response was overwhelming. He figured he was on to something, so he set up a simple website, BlueMarbles.org, and decided “to try and see how big we could make this thing with no budget or strategic plan.” Nichols now estimates that there are as many as a million of his blue marbles in circulation around the planet. They have made it into the hands of Jane Goodall, Harrison Ford, James Cameron, E. O. Wilson, and four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey, who carried one during this year’s race.

Nichols’s success at reaching large numbers of people on an emotional level both underscores the premise of his theories and makes it harder to dismiss him as a left-coast flake. Several times over the past six months, I watched him captivate audiences with a clever Trojan-horse narrative: I’m a scientist, but—surprise!—I want to talk about how much we all love the ocean. During one lecture at Stanford, he implored graduate students to remember that, as conservationists, “we have the power of happiness on our side.”

For environmentalists struggling to find a message with staying power, Nichols’s feel-good approach offers a compelling alternative to the usual tactic of scaring people into action with bad news about extinctions or global warming. “Hell, we’ve tried everything else,” says Nature Conservancy scientist M. Sanjayan. “We’ve tried to price nature. We’ve tried to stand and protest. We’ve tried every way we know to get people to see what we’ve seen, and we’ve been failing.”

Nichols blames these failures on the detached way scientists gather and share information. When he was studying Baja’s sea turtles as a doctoral student at the University of Arizona in the mid-1990s, he hired fishermen and former turtle poachers to help collect data. The research was interesting, but Nichols was even more intrigued by the intense and often conflicting feelings locals had for the animals. He convened a gathering of everyone—“turtle lovers, turtle eaters, biologists, NGOs”—and they formed an activist network called Grupo Tortuguero.

Nichols was energized, but his academic advisers were skeptical. “‘You’re organizing fishermen—where’s the biology?” they asked. He was told to avoid the human element in his thesis. “It made no sense,” says Nichols. “The changes happening in the ocean and with those turtles were driven by humans.”

He was similarly progressive in his research methods. Early on in Baja, he tagged a female turtle his team had named Adelita with a GPS transponder and posted her coordinates online as she made a never-before-recorded crossing of the Pacific to Japan. His colleagues were horrified. “‘They said, ‘Someone could steal your data!’ ” Nichols laughs. “My response was: ‘And do what with it? Save turtles?’ ”

TODAY, NICHOLS applies this same open-source spirit to what he calls his “fluid” career. He’s spent most of the past decade “hopping between grants” while continuing to publish research on turtles, often coauthored by graduate students he advises. He works with a number of environmental groups and recently created SeetheWild.org, a nonprofit that connects adventure travelers with conservation projects in exotic locations. His office, a 1954 Airstream trailer parked at a friend’s organic strawberry farm off California’s Highway 1, is also the headquarters for Slowcoast, an initiative he recently helped launch to draw tourists to the mostly empty stretch between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz, with future revenue supporting local public-school lunch reform.

In 2009, Nichols applied for a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to fund a year of neuroscience classes at Harvard and MIT as a way to kick-start his neuroconservation campaign. He posted his 12-page proposal on his website the day he submitted it. “I just put it out there,” says Nichols. “I was basically saying, Somebody do this, please.” Pew turned him down. “They didn’t get it,” he says. “Which was not a surprise; there’s a reason this research hasn’t been done.”

Indeed, it’s one thing to get forward-thinking scientists excited about a hypothesis, but it’s another to get institutions to dedicate dollars to test it. Back in 1984, E. O. Wilson popularized the term biophilia to describe what he considers humans’ inherent attraction to “life and lifelike processes.” It became a popular theory but wasn’t something Wilson or anyone else initially sought to prove. Now cognitive researchers are investigating what—exactly—nature does to our minds, with studies showing improved attention span and memory, and reduced stress, among other benefits. (See “You Need a Braincation”) Designing experiments to study how our brains react to the ocean wouldn’t be especially difficult, Nichols says. (Among other ideas, he envisions immersing lab subjects in ocean sounds and images while taking brain scans.) But by focusing so explicitly on feelings, Nichols is emanating the kind of New Age vibes that many neuroscientists reflexively avoid. Environmentalists, on the other hand, are prone to question the conservation value of any data such studies might produce. Knowing that something is good for us won’t necessarily change our actions (see: exercise, diet, sleep). Plus, what if studies show that a polluted, depleted ocean calms our minds as much as a vibrant one does?

Nichols remains convinced that a researcher will take up his cause soon. Meanwhile, with no regular salary (he isn’t paid by the California Academy of Sciences), he has struggled to support his wife, Dana, who manages Slowcoast, and their two grade-school-age daughters while marshaling his neuro-conservation drive. His solution is 100BlueAngels.org, a site he established earlier this year that asks people to support him with monthly contributions. Recently, he was on pace to bring in what would amount to a $43,000 salary. He supplements this with modeling gigs, which he’s taken since college (look for his mug in Gap stores during the holidays), but has had to borrow against his home and take a $10,000 loan from his father.

“People ask me, ‘Why don’t you sock this idea away until you can get the money and do the research yourself—be the pioneering guy and get all the credit?’ ” Nichols says. “That’s just not as interesting to me. I’d rather hang it out there. Throw a conference. Create the chatter. And hopefully inspire some neuroscientists to ask some of these questions.”

NICHOLS DOES THROW a hell of a conference. This past June, for his Bluemind Summit, which he billed as a gathering that would “forever link the studies of mind and ocean,” Nichols wrangled a remarkably eclectic mix of neuro-nerds, greens, adventurers, futurists, artists, a video-game inventor, a high-end realtor, and one very gnarly big-wave surfer to the Academy of Sciences for a marathon day of presentations. The lineup alone demonstrated Nichols’s flair for making science both relevant and accessible.

Early on, Eric Johnson, a nattily attired realtor with Sotheby’s, cited the premium people are willing to pay for a water view. “We can see the storms or pirates approaching,” said Johnson, noting that wealthy owners of high-rise apartments are automatic environmentalists because “clean, clear water keeps property values up.” Marcus Eriksen, a marine scientist known for a 2008 crossing of the Pacific in his Junk, a raft made primarily of plastic debris, discussed our basic biological reasons for living on the seashore: lots of food and few predators. Ocean activist Fabien Cousteau noted that humans and whales share the mammalian reflex, which allows us to stay underwater for long periods without breathing, while Maverick’s surfer Jeff Clark talked about his learned ability to sense things like the presence of sharks. “Listening to the feedback that the ocean provides will keep you surfing for years,” he concluded.

There were some lighter touches. A cellist kicked things off with a medley “full of ocean-ness”—a Nichols  request—and each presenter was introduced with a six-word bio (“passion, teacher, vegetables…”). At one point, Jaimal Yogis, author of Salt-water Buddha, about his quest to find Zen through surfing, led everyone in meditation. Hugs happened.

Still, several cognitive scientists were also on hand to offer serious theories about the brain-on-ocean dynamic. Philippe Goldin, a clinical psychologist and a neuroscientist at Stanford, cited research showing that meditation helped some people with anxiety regain their calm after an emotional event, then speculated that similar processes might be going on in the brains of surfers, who learn to react immediately to a rising swell, then “enjoy the time between waves” after a set passes. Michael Merzenich, a professor emeritus of neuroscience at the University of California at San Francisco and one of the foremost authorities on neuro-plasticity—the brain’s ability to rewire itself—suggested that our attraction to the ocean may derive from its lack of physical markers. On land, we are constantly mapping our environment in our minds so we can pick out dangers (snake!) amid landmarks (tree, bush, rock). Looking over a calm sea is akin to closing our eyes. And when something does emerge on the surface, it captivates us.

Come nightfall, the summit turned into a very Northern California kind of happening. We ambled into the academy’s planetarium for some ocean-themed readings and a visualization exercise, before combining forces with the academy’s regular weekly party, which turns the place into a sort of geek-cool dance club. The night’s topic was sustainable seafood (purposefully synced with Bluemind), so along with the DJs and organic cocktails there were free local oysters, interactive displays about overfishing and exotic marine creatures, and pamphlets on smarter sushi eating.

Toward the end of the night, on a stage set in a cavernous hall of African wildlife dioramas, a dance troupe in shimmery blue tights and tank tops performed a number called “Aqua.” At one point, oceanographer Sylvia Earle’s voice was looped in over house beats: Imagine an ocean without fish. The ocean is alive.

LET’S SAY neuroscience does demonstrate that sitting by the ocean provides a unique and primal kind of stimulus that washes away stress. Would our reaction necessarily be a strong desire to protect it? Or might we all instead just selfishly want our own Malibu beach pad?

That sums up the attitude of Michael Soulé, who pioneered the field of conservation biology in the 1970s and later chaired the environmental-studies program at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Soulé, as it happens, has been reading neuroscience studies for a book he’s writing about our inability to preserve nature. “I admire Nichols’s work and his excitement, but the field of cognitive neuroscience can lead you to the opposite conclusions,” he told me. Like Nichols, Soulé believes that emotions drive our behavior, but his analysis of fMRI studies, which allow neuroscientists to observe the brain at work, has him convinced that humans are “hardwired to be very self-centered and self-biased.” Understanding why chilling out by the ocean makes us feel great won’t motivate a shift in our fundamentally greedy behavior. We are born to be “good consumers but not good conservationists.”

Nichols’s response: Of course we’re self-centered. That’s why knowing the mechanisms behind something that makes us happy is so powerful—it resonates with our innate desire to feel good, whether we get that feeling from sitting on a beach or protecting it. Regardless, he argues, understanding what goes on in our brains when we’re in the presence of the ocean can only help us craft a more persuasive conservation agenda.

Both Soulé and Nichols cite Antonio R. Damasio’s popular 1994 book Descartes’ Error as an influence. Damasio, a neurobiologist, argued that humans can’t reason or make decisions without emotion, an idea that ran counter to accepted theories about the division between our rational and emotional selves. Subsequent research showing that the neural pathways of high-level cognition route through our limbic system, the brain’s primitive hub where emotions and memories are processed, essentially proved him right. This is why, as marketers and politicians well know, you’re most likely to garner dollars or votes by pitching to people’s hearts instead of their heads.

The same idea holds true for the environment. At Bluemind, Dawn Martin, the president of SeaWeb, a nonprofit dedicated to strategic messaging on ocean issues, made the case that facts are meaningless unless they’re communicated in a way that strikes an emotional chord. She pointed to the collapse of the North Atlantic swordfish population in the mid-1990s, which activists fought unsuccessfully with statistics. Then SeaWeb partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council to recast the crisis, creating the Give Swordfish a Break campaign, which included an ad with a tiny swordfish on a plate, a pacifier in its mouth: we’re eating the babies. By 2000 the federal government had closed swordfish nursery areas to fishing.

Nichols appreciates the value of neuroscience-informed social marketing, but he insists that “that’s the least interesting part” of what he hopes to learn. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re just going to be an environmental propagandist.’ No. I have no interest in that,” he told me. “I want you to understand what’s happening in your head. My interest is in taking you along for the ride.”

NOT LONG AGO, I took my two-year-old son to the Academy of Sciences. Almost from the moment we got inside, he was running—past alligators in a pond and snakes in terrariums, up the path that winds around the four-story-tall rainforest exhibit and its free-flying birds and butterflies, around two life-size model giraffes, all while eating crackers.

Only when we descended the stairs to the Philippine reef did his pace slow. He walked past a couple of smaller windows and came to a halt in front of the massive panoramic view, the cool blue light in the room fluttering about him as shafts of sunlight pierced the water. On one of the benches facing the window, a young mother nursed her infant. People milled about, whispering. My son put his hands on the window and stared without moving or talking for a full 30 seconds—an eternity in toddler time.

Then he spun around, looked me in the eye, and said, “I want to go in there!”

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