Blue Marbles, Blue Mind: How water saves us all

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ The two young fish swim on for a bit. Eventually, one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the heck is water?'”

Sometimes we cannot see the forest for the trees – or water either, for that matter. And awareness is a mindful thing – how do we cultivate it?

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 Wallace J. Nichols is a fantastic book about all aspects of water and how we are nurtured by it, emotionally, physically and at a surprisingly deep neurological level as well.

Nichols begins his book describing the moment he is standing on a pier in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, 50′ feet above the ocean, about ready to jump while wearing a “bejeweled swim cap” bedecked with long black snakes of cable running down his back – a lab rat about to measure the brain’s response to the ocean. The cap is a “nerve center,” a mobile electroencephalogram (EEG) unit, invented by Dr. Stephen Sands, a biomedical expert examining the behavioral and neurophysiological data that tracks the brain’s response to advertising.

American anthropologist Loren Eiseley said: “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” Eiseley once described human beings as “a way that water has of going about, beyond the reach of rivers.”

In fact, the earth is 70 percent covered in water, 95 percent of those waters as yet undiscovered, and 80 percent of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of the coastline of an ocean, lake or river. Why? Because to human beings, water is “home.” We spend nine months suspended in water before birth. At birth, our bodies are 78 percent water; the human brain is 80 percent water.

Nichols: “It is time to drop the old notions of separation between emotion and science…Just as rivers join on their way to the ocean, to understand Blue Mind we need to draw together separate streams: analysis and affection; elation and experimentation; head and heart…today cognitive neuroscientists have begun to understand how emotions drive virtually every decision we make.”

As Rick Hanson writes in Hardwiring Happiness, “The brain takes its shape from what the mind rests upon.” We actually strengthen the happiness neural pathways – that is, make it easier for us to feel positive emotions – by choosing positive experiences. In terms of a happiness quotient, happiness is 50 percent genetic disposition, 10 percent life circumstances; and 40 percent what we pay attention to – shaped by the meaningful activities we voluntarily choose. Research shows that sustainable happiness is connected to a sense of place, and overwhelmingly people record being happier in nature, and preferably near water.

While brain research has determined that we build “perceptual maps” based upon our sensory experiences, urbanization and technology do not match our anthropology. Nichols: “Neon signs are beautiful, cell phones are useful, subways are efficient and crowds spilling out into the paved streets have a powerful appeal. But such commotions are the wrong key to a lock installed by evolution – and even those amidst the skyscrapers know it without knowing it.”

What are the qualities of water that make the brain sparkle? The brain responds to color, shininess and motion.

Blue. According to neurosurgeon Amir Vokshoor, a spinal and cranial disorder specialist, “blue’s wavelengths correlate to the release of neurotransmitters thought to be associated with feelings of euphoria, joy, reward, and wellness related to the effects of dopamine.”

The motion of water is therapeutic – because of what we are made of and because of how our brain works. Nichols: “It’s why humans love fountains and waterfalls…(are) transfixed by sunlight sparkling on the surface of ponds, lakes, streams, rivers and oceans. In the motion of water, we see patterns that never exactly repeat themselves yet have a restful similarity.”

Water slows us down, counter balancing the hypervigilant state of the brain in a technology-driven culture. Floating in water is actually meditative. After spending 90 minutes in a floatation tank, Nichols felt as if he had been staring at the ocean for hours – floating allows the brain to move from the waking state (beta waves) to that state of relaxation prior to sleep (theta).

Nichols: “In this altered state the mind settles into nothingness, the inner voice is silent, and often a feeling of oneness and bliss occurs.” This is what neuroscientists are now referring to as “Drift” mode – daydreaming – once thought to be wasting time, is now looked at neurologically as valuable time for the brain to rest, recover and “float” in involuntary attention.

Swimming, fishing, surfing, scuba-diving, sailing, jetskiing, canoeing, kayaking, wind surfing, paddleboarding – globally, 500 million people chose water-based recreation.

Water activities heal. Sail to Prevail in Newport and Nantucket uses a fleet of specially-equipped sailboats to help 1,500 people with disabilities learn the basics of sailing. Heroes on the Water (HOW) helped more than 3,000 wounded warriors and vets to relax, rehabilitate and reintegrate by taking them kayak fishing. Other organizations use surfing and fishing to treat, stress, addiction, autism.

Nichols says water “distracts us in the best sort of way, allowing us to think of little else beyond what’s in front of you…you don’t need to meditate to take advantage of its effects because it meditates you.”

In 2010, Nichols created the Blue Mind Conference, an interdisciplinary gathering of professionals working at the intersection of brain science and conservation. Brain scientists, oceanographers, explorers, educators, psychologists, and artists come together “to create the new story of water, consider the deep human connection to our water planet, and explore the cognitive, emotional, psychological, social and spiritual benefits of keeping it healthy.”

Thus far, seven Blue Mind conferences have been held around the globe.

Blue Mind 8: Water is Medicine will be Oct. 3-8, at the Frost Museum of Science, Miami, Florida. Practitioners, researchers, wild water men and women, artists and writers will bring “world-changing” research and practical applications to support the fact that water – in all its shapes, sizes, and uses, truly is medicine. The website states: “Be prepared to change the way you think, feel, and act towards water…for good.”

Nichols has developed a small symbol to personalize his global issue – a blue marble to be passed from person to person as a reminder about how water saves us and how we must save the water. So think about passing along a blue marble to someone else – as you kayak the Nashua River. Or spread your wings, because – of course – New Hampshire has it all – rivers, lakes, ocean. Gundalow and Portsmouth Harbor cruises; the Isles of Shoals cruises; the Mount Washington on Lake Winnipesaukee. Or go see the Tall Ships this weekend, July 25-29, in Portsmouth’s Parade of Sail, led this year by the schooner Roseway, known for her red sails.

Blue marble, blue mind – a talisman of neuro-conservation.

Quincy Whitney is a career journalist, author, historian, biographer and poet and a lifelong New Hampshire resident. Contact her at quincysquill@nashuatelegraph.com or quincy@quincywhtiney.com.