Interview with: Dr. Wallace J. Nichols

 If you’ve ever been mesmerized by the ocean or calmed by a relaxing bath, you may have experienced the state called blue mind. Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, who coined the term in his bestselling book Blue Mind, discusses the phenomenon’s impact on people and our planet. 

 Have you always enjoyed being near water?

When I was a kid, I stuttered and was shy. I was also adopted, so I had a lot of questions and confusion about things. As a result, I preferred to be underwater because you can’t stutter underwater or be asked questions. That’s probably why I became a marine biologist. 

How do we know when we’re experiencing blue mind? How can it benefit us?

It’s intuitive, but there’s science behind it. I think the best comparison, although imperfect, would be with gravity. You may not know why gravity works, but you intuitively know it does. Likewise, you may know that being by the water makes you feel good without knowing why.

 As far as benefits are concerned, blue mind may help you deal with stress, depression, and anxiety, and it can help boost creativity. Hopefully, by experiencing such benefits, we’ll appreciate, protect, and restore our lakes, rivers, and oceans. You can put it to amazing use. 

 Is this a universal human condition?

It is. It’s found across all cultures, so it’s an ancient idea. We may have deviated from it, but we’re once again understanding its importance. We should keep this old tool in our well-being toolbox, in addition to therapies and pharmaceuticals, because it works. The clinical research shows that water in its various forms does good things for us. 

Can people experience blue mind wherever they live?

Yes, and I’m intentionally very ecumenical about it. Personally, I enjoy the ocean the most, but I also like creeks, lakes, rivers, rain, pools, and my bathtub. But even a postcard of a beach or a sound machine in your bedroom may change your neurochemistry to make you feel good.

Is it maximized the more the senses are involved?

That’s a good question. I just described a few examples of very mild but effective blue mind. The other extreme, as you described, would be a full sensory-immersion experience, where you taste, smell, feel, and see the water all around you. But between the extremes, there’s a wide spectrum of blue mind experiences, from swimming in a pool to taking a shower to walking around a neighborhood creek or pond. Even rain, ice, fog, and snow create blue mind because they’re all forms of water.

Does shimmering water amplify blue mind?

I was actually talking to someone about this yesterday. There’s a theory that humanity’s original and most important shiny object is water, so our attraction to shiny things is tapping into our innate need to be around water. 

What’s the biggest barrier to experiencing blue mind?

I think it’s people stopping themselves. And I say that being very aware of my own privilege—I’ve never been told that I can’t go in the water because of my skin color, heritage, gender, or religion. 

That said, if you want to experience blue mind, you will. The barriers are often perceptual. For example, some people fear the water. That can be overcome. But between the wild water, the water in our homes, the urban water and fountains in our cities, and the virtual water we create, anyone can find a source of blue mind. 

The key is making this idea common knowledge and practice among eight billion people, which would be good for our health, the health of water, and the health of the planet.

Is blue mind especially helpful for people like veterans or first responders?

Blue mind is not a silver bullet or standalone medical solution. However, research indicates that blue mind can help as a supplement to whatever you’re already doing to manage your anxiety, stress, or mild depression. As far as the groups you mentioned, they are running toward problems on our behalf daily. They often need help, and I think blue mind therapies can be extremely helpful. And, in some cases, even lifesaving. 

How did your book come about?

Years into my career, I started noticing that many other people also seemed to feel better when they were at or in the water. I realized that was significant since the feeling can dictate our recreation, careers, and even where we live, and I wanted to understand it better. I looked everywhere for books on the subject but couldn’t find any. 

I then tried to get other people to write the book I wanted to read and failed. The final person I pitched it to was Dr. Oliver Sacks, the late neurologist. I’ll always remember very clearly what he said: “It’s a fine idea. You do it.” So I did.

I’m glad I did because I hear a lot about Blue Mind impacting people’s lives. For example, I remember one indigenous woman who was in a bad place until she read Blue Mind, which inspired her to rekindle a relationship with her river in New Mexico. She came to a book signing to share that story, and we both cried. Trained as a marine biologist, I wasn’t emotionally prepared to be the recipient of so many amazing and powerful stories.

You’ve traveled extensively. How do you feel about the status of the earth’s water?

Broadly speaking, our value equation is broken. We undervalue our lakes, rivers, oceans, and groundwater. When we undervalue anything or anyone, bad things happen. I’ve seen it everywhere when it comes to water. It’s not only the economic and ecological value but also the vast emotional value—that third “e” is usually left out.

Water may be economically valued for the services it provides and ecologically valued because we’re taught to do so, but it’s almost completely undervalued from an emotional health perspective. I’m optimistic that emphasizing this could go a long way toward fixing the overall problem and compelling decision-makers to protect and restore our bodies of water. It’s an emergent story, especially since COVID began, that if we do our part and nature does its thing, these waters can be regenerated.

What can people do in their everyday lives to make this happen?

My standard answer is this: wherever you live, you know what you want to do to help nature—just go do it. However, if you pushed me on it, I would say to get into your local body of water. If you realize there’s a lot of junk in it, then it might inspire you to clean it up.

In fact, research shows that if you go to a body of water for emotional health benefits and find it cluttered by pollution, those benefits are drastically diminished. The same holds true for, say, an unkempt front yard or a cluttered house. If you’re on the open road with no other cars, it’s a better experience than a highway with billboards and traffic. 

Earlier, you mentioned common knowledge. Is such awareness a key to humanity achieving blue mind?

I’m driven by this idea of common knowledge and practice. There’s a theoretical background to it that’s important. When knowledge is private, collaboration is way down. When it’s shared, collaboration goes up to 45 percent, and when it is truly common knowledge, it’s closer to an 85 percent collaboration level. So I’m betting on the idea that blue mind becoming common knowledge will be a powerfully transformative concept. I think the world could use more common knowledge we all agree on because there’s so much contention over ideas. In contrast, blue mind is something that can bring us all together.

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