Why neuroscience may help save the oceans
Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols believes we’re psychologically tethered to our primordial home, the ocean. Sound far-fetched? Then think for a moment about how you feel when you’re standing on a beach, looking out at the seemingly endless blue horizon, or when you pick up a seashell and “listen” to the sound of waves crashing ashore. There’s something about it, isn’t there? Nichols has termed this feeling "blue mind," he explained in a recent interview published in OnEarth, and he's enlisted the help of neuroscientists to study it.
Twice in the past year – once in June, then again a few weeks ago – he gathered those researchers, as well as environmentalists, conservation scientists and artists together, in California, at the BLUEMiND Summit, to start exploring this connection. Nichols said in the interview:
Sound, for example, affects our brain and influences our emotions. If I ask you to close your eyes and turn on a recording of the ocean, I can change your mood immediately. There’s a huge body of research on the science of music and the brain, but almost nothing on the sound of the ocean and the brain. That’s probably going to be the first study that comes out of the Blue Mind Summit....
His interest in the way our brains respond to the deep blue sea isn’t merely academic. He sees it as the foundation for a new kind of response to the environmental crisis facing the oceans: NeuroConservation. This 21st-century form of conservation would harness new discoveries about the brain and behavior, courtesy of advances in cognitive neuroscience, to help people become better environmental stewards. “Without a deeper understanding of our brains, we’re not going to ‘think our way out’ of the current biospheric crisis,” Nichols writes at Mindandocean.org.
Essentially, Blue Mind amounts to a wake-up call for the conservation movement to embrace the same tools – in particular, powerful brain-imaging technologies such as fMRI -- that some corporations, with the aid of so-called “neuromarketers,” are using to convince us to buy their product instead of a competitor’s. But rather than using this knowledge to shift our behavior at the grocery store, Nichols wants to put it to use shifting our relationship with the planet — inculcating our peers and future generations with an ethos of conservation.
As he told OnEarth:
The idea is, how can we use what we learn about the brain as a tool for building empathy? But it’s critical to do it in a transparent way, so it’s not creepy, like mind control. Instead, it’s actually empowering, because it teaches you how your brain works. I tell my kids: "Because your brain works this way, we’re going to spend some time by the ocean. Hopefully, you’ll fall in love with it!
Watch the most recent gathering, BLUEMiND: Your Brain on the Ocean.
Image: Jim Epler
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