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Wallace J Nichols

Wallace J Nichols

Posted: November 8, 2009 09:05 PM

Oceanophilia: The Neuroscience of Emotion and the Ocean

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"We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea -- whether it is to sail or to watch it -- we are going back from whence we came." 
- President John F. Kennedy

Once I met a man who hated the ocean. Intensely, he said. He described to me fear, negative associations and a general unease he couldn't quite put his finger on. His aversion was so strong -- especially when measured against my own great, unabashed love for the ocean -- that I'll never forget my bewilderment. Everyone I have ever known loves the ocean. I'm not talking about lower-case "l" kind of love either; the kind that we apply indiscriminately to pop stars, sports teams and chocolate bars. I mean the capital "L" kind of Love; the love that is unfathomable and ineffable, a fusion of respect, understanding, awe, sensuality and mystery.

A few years ago, I read with great interest reports of interrogators at Guantanamo promising detainees a swim in the tropical ocean as an inducement to cooperation. From those small, hot jail cells, clad in heavy jumpsuits, the ocean must have looked mighty inviting. The technique worked.

Later, in the summer of 2003, on a coastal trek from Oregon to Mexico, I walked past a beachfront bungalow for sale in Del Mar, California. Eight-hundred square feet, no lot, but the sound, smell, sight, touch and taste of the Pacific awaited just beyond the bedroom window. The asking price? A cool $6.3 million. They got their asking price, then some.

I've also spent a lot of time with fishermen around the world. I've seen their working love of the ocean up close. Theirs is boundless joy in the freedom of a wide open, big blue space. It is the irresistible draw to a life spent catching seafood. In one Mexican lobstering co-op I work with, the rogue member who dares violate the community rules of "how many" and "how big" is banished to the packing facility with a never-ending view of white walls and stainless steel tables instead of big blue. For them, it is the worst punishment imaginable. Few, if any, subvert the community standards.

And, whenever I travel -- which is a lot -- I invariably meet total strangers who say: "So, you're a marine biologist?  I dreamed of being a marine biologist when I was a kid!" And they'll disappear on the red Zodiac, chasing down whale songs on the ocean in their head.

We humans offer up our dreams, our secrets and our treasures to the sea from whence we came. Those imprisoned terrorists, lifelong fishermen, deep-pocketed property owners and world-weary travelers clearly feel great love for the ocean. But, why? What is it about the ocean that speaks to us on such a fundamental, profound human level? I have always wanted to know, but my chosen profession, science -- skeptical, detached, dispassionate science -- wouldn't allow me to go there.

When I was a graduate student, I tried to weave that big human Love into my dissertation on the relationship between sea turtle ecology and coastal communities. No luck. My advisors steered me to other departments, another career even. "Keep that 'emotional' stuff out of your science, young man," they counseled. Emotion wasn't rational. It wasn't quantifiable. It wasn't science.

But, the human-ocean connection, "oceanophilia" as I dubbed it, held me in its grip even as my career as a scientist blossomed. Eventually, I shaped my general philosophy into an effort I called "Oceanophilia: The Mind and Ocean Initiative." Today, I think -- actually, I know -- it is time for a new kind of ocean science.

Economists, marketers and politicians recognize that deep-seated, inscrutable emotions, not rationality, are what rule human behavior. Aided by cognitive neuroscientists, these fields have begun to understand how our deepest, most primordial emotions drive virtually every decision we make, from what we buy to the candidates we elect. To my way of thinking, if the lessons of cognitive neuroscience can be used for the crass purposes of influencing what people buy and how they vote, why not use such knowledge for ocean conservation? I believe we can. And, I believe we should.

We must seize this particular moment in time -- when the nascent power of neuroscience is burgeoning and the popular momentum is toward conservation rather than exploitation. We can use science to explore and understand the profound and ancient emotional and sensual connections that lead to deeper relationships with the ocean. I believe that if we do that we have an opportunity for real conservation gains that could do some true and lasting good for the ocean and planet Earth.

It's time to drop the old notions of separation between emotion and science. Emotion is science. Let's convene the top marine scientists, skilled communicators, dedicated conservationists, and leading neurobiologists and cognitive psychologists to ask and answer the most probing and compelling set of questions about the ocean that we can imagine. Let's explore the mind-ocean connection -- oceanophilia.

Let's mentor a new wave of passionate and brilliant graduate students to get their PhD's in the breakthrough field of NeuroConservation. And together, let's mine neuroscience to develop a set of powerful conservation tools that educators, advocates, policymakers and scientists can use to better and more deeply engage, inspire and lead people in the restoration and protection of our beloved ocean.

Who knows what we will find. It's likely, maybe even certain, that the greatest unexplored mysteries of the sea are buried not under a blanket of blue, but deep in the human mind. The lessons are in there. They await only discovery.