During one lecture at Stanford, Nichols implored graduate students to remember that, as conservation- ists, "we have the power of happiness on our side."
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.