BLUEMIND: This Is Your Brain on Ocean

The ocean imparts a trillion-dollar premium on hotel rooms, condos and all forms of coastal real estate. People want to see and hear the sea from where they eat and sleep and are willing to shell out a lot of green to get some blue.
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"We are more than logical. We are human."
--Jacques Yves Cousteau

Once, I met a man who hated the ocean. Intensely, he said. He described to me fear, negative associations and a general unease that 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 lowercase "l" kind of love, either; the kind that we apply indiscriminately to pop stars, sports teams, soft drinks 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.

Nearly a decade ago, I read with great interest reports of interrogators at Guantanamo promising detainees a swim in the tropical ocean in order to induce 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.

It turns out that globally, the ocean imparts a trillion-dollar premium on hotel rooms, condos, houses and all other forms of coastal real estate. People want to see and hear the sea from where they eat and sleep and are willing to shell out a lot of green to get some blue.

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 to 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.

The poet Robinson Jeffers found language in the rhythm and drone of ocean waves and the meditative act of rolling boulders up from the sea to build his stone home. "The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the heartbreaking beauty will remain when there is no heart to break for it," he wrote.

Canadian actor Michael J. Fox famously quit television right after spending a few hours blissfully following a sea turtle gliding through the blue Caribbean sea. "Never once after my encounter with the sea turtle have I wavered in my conviction that it was the right thing for me to do and the right time for me to do it," he wrote.

A girl in the fourth grade at the San Francisco School sat in front of me holding a bright blue marble to her left eye. "It's beautiful in there, I can see whales and turtles and hear the ocean," she said. "I know just who I'm going to give this to."

I also queried the modern oracle (Twitter) on the topic of the number-one seafood (shrimp) and learned a lot about Americans' unbridled passion for cheap, fried crustaceans. We know that a certain kind of obsessed food and power addition underlies the extirpation of bluefin tuna, sharks and sea turtles, which get caught in shrimp nets, from the ocean.

@DSchnell: "Ate 90 pieces of shrimp at Red Lobster's Endless Shrimp, now it's time for bed"

@davezatz: "Red Lobster's Endless Shrimp would be more appealing if they provided an announcer and scoreboard. Gluttony ftw"

@OREOaddict16: "i just ate my weight in endless shrimp at red lobster..yum =)"

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 treasure to the sea whence we came. Those imprisoned terrorists, lifelong fishermen, deep-pocketed property owners, poets, shrimp and tuna addicts and world-weary travelers clearly feel great emotional pull toward 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 emotion 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 fuzzy 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, "BLUEMIND," as we've dubbed it, held me in its grip even as my career as a scientist blossomed. Eventually, I shaped my general philosophy into an effort called "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.

Consider these questions:

Why is "ocean view" the most valuable phrase in the english language, bestowing a 50-percent premium on everything from lunch to a night's sleep in a hotel room to a beachfront cottage?

If stress causes disease, and the ocean reduces stress, is time spent in, on, under or near the ocean good medicine?

Can our deepening understanding of brain science be applied to better protection for ocean animals being eaten to extinction by addicted and power-hungry humans?

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 -- our BLUEMINDs.

Let's mentor a new wave of passionate and brilliant graduate students to get their Ph.D.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, medical doctors 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 and new questions are in there. They await only discovery.

BLUEMIND: Your Brain on Ocean is being held June 2, 2011 at the California Academy of Sciences. Watch and listen to the summit live online at

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