It’s World Ocean Month, and June 8th is World Ocean Day. I wanted to share a fantastic book, which has soared close to the top of my “favorites” list. It’s called Blue Mind by Wallace J. Nichols (who refers to himself as Jay throughout the book). This book shares the “surprising science that shows how being near, in, on, or under water can make us happier, healthier, more connected, and better at what we do.” I’d love to share some of the genius wisdom I received from reading it, so if you are game, let’s dive on in!
Big Idea #1 Our Hijacked Brains and How Blue Mind Helps
Catherine Franssen, a neuroscientist and expert on the biology of physical and mental stress, defined “red mind” as an “edgy high, characterized by stress, anxiety, fear, and maybe even a little bit of anger and despair.” This state is a result of the physiological stress response that evolved to help us survive. “Your neuroendocrine system has been built and evolved for a reason,” Franssen comments. “These ‘Red Mind’ hormones are essential for escaping predators. We need to have the stress response; it’s important. But today, non-life-threatening stressors activate the same biological systems, meaning the same physiological stress response that we used to run away from a lion on the Serengeti is activated when the mortgage bill shows up in the mail. As we encounter little stressors throughout the day, our stress hormones remain high and keep us in an agitated state. Thus, our Red Mind stress response is turned on all the time, repeatedly, every day.”Wallace J Nichols- Blue Mind
So in the beginning of the book, Jay shares a story of his friend Jaimal, who as an avid swimmer and surfer, always felt comfortable in the water. One day, though, while swimming in California waters, Jaimal’s feel-good chemical releases of endorphins, oxytocin, and dopamine are stalled when he feels a disturbance at the water’s surface. The stress-response Sympathetic system that Catherine Franssen discusses kicks in. Our brains, being extremely risk-aversive, are hard-wired to look for potentially negative stimuli, and Jaimal’s brain responds almost before his conscious mind does. Jay describes how Jaimal’s amygdala puts the body on high alert and floods his brain with norepinephrine, the wake-up chemical and signals the conscious brain to check out the disturbance. The amygdala revs up the sympathetic nervous system to prepare for fight or flight. When Jaimal sees what looks like a fin breaking through the water, his hypervigilance turns to outright fear. The SNS takes over and signals the release of adrenaline, and prepares the body for flight. Cortisol surges through his veins, and Jaimal’s entire body is neurologically hijacked with the message “potential predator—danger!” He immediately swims to shore as fast as he can. Once safe on the beach, Jaimal turns and looks back, and sees 4-5 dolphin fins’ slicing through the water. His sides are still heaving and his heart is still pounding from the exertion, but he mentally kicks himself for swimming away from a chance to be in the water with an entire pod of dolphins. As Jay describes though, Jaimal had no choice. His cognitive brain was hijacked by the “drive to survive”.
I found this story a stunning example of WHY our brains were developed to respond to stress the way they do. Jaimal was living the maybe not TYPICAL day of our ancestors, but something they had to potentially contend with on a somewhat regular basis. His brain reacted precisely the way it was designed and should have responded.
However, in today’s world, what Jaimal experienced has become the rare event, and in its place are everyday stressors like traffic, work deadlines, commitments, tests, and the biggest doozies to our stress response: social media, emails, and television.
This reminds me of Alberto Villolo’s book One Spirit Medicine. In that great book Villolo tells us: “Nature designed the brain to deal with only one lion roaring at us at a time, not the entire jungle turning against us.” He also shares a startling factoid about our new jungle and the stress we put on our brain, our stress response, and in effect, our body and health: “From television and Internet alone, we’re exposed to more stimuli in a week than our Paleolithic ancestors were exposed to in a lifetime. And we’re continually running to keep up with the new information, to the point that we’re chronically exhausted.”
We are being chased by pods of dolphins that our brain is interpreting as sharks.
So, how do we combat this, combat the fatigue, the burnout, the anxiety, and health implications of being ON ALL THE TIME?
Jay argues that Blue Mind is certainly part of the solution. Research shows that visiting a spot in nature, such as a pond, or river, a waterfall, the beach, or even your favorite animal at an aquarium can lower our cortisol, and induce feelings of “flow”, where creativity, inspiration, and leaning into challenges empowers us. You can bring these aspects into your home, too.
After reading Blue Mind, I remembered my early childhood and having an aquarium with fish. I remember taking care of the fish, cleaning the tank regularly, picking new fish, feeding them, and WATCHING them for hours. I wasn’t doing it because some scientist told me it was good for me. I did it because it felt good.
I decided that something like an aquarium would benefit me nowadays, too. I got a small 5 gallon aquarium with 2 little minnows that I named Serendipity and Flow. I even discovered we received a bonus stowaway snail from our live plant that we named Waldo (because every time I look in the aquarium I say “where’s Waldo?”, although I joke that Waldo is my Muse because he hides on me and comes out only when it suits him and he’s feeling generous…)
I spend 5 minutes each morning and 5 minutes each evening staring into the small box of my favorite element of nature. And now Serendipity and Flow (and even Waldo my Muse) are living up to their names. After an aquarium session, I feel much more relaxed, and honestly, ideas come to me more easily. When I feel stuck, and I’m working at home, I look up and see one of the fish dart across the water, playing in the water-stream, or hiding among the plants, and I smile. It’s better than checking my email or Facebook status. It’s a perfect neurological and environmental symbiosis—blending my love for the ocean with my desire to finish my creative projects.
Big Idea #2 Empathetic Conservation
I had a motive: I wanted to change the way people thought about turtles as part of an effort to ensure their continued survival (both turtles and fishers). It seemed like a long shot, and all of the turtle experts I consulted in the States and Mexico considered it a lost cause. In these small coastal communities, sea turtles were considered an important food source and part of the traditional local diet. Anyone who might even mention the idea of protecting turtles instead of eating them faced accusations of eliminating a mainstay of the local way of life.Wallace J Nichols- Blue Mind
We started small and slowly because I knew we needed to understand the fishers’ world. These men were not our opponents, nor were they malicious; they were people just like us, and we all needed to be able to see our common humanity. We fished with them and stayed in their homes. We had long conversations, asking them about their lives and occupations. We learned aobut the challenges of supporting families on what these men could catch, and yet we also discovered their enormous love of the sea and pride in their profession. We agreed about the beauty of this part of Mexico, with its beaches and abundance of wildlife.
As we worked with them, talked with them, lived with them, we developed a sense of mutual respect and trust with their community. With that trust, it was possible to start asking the question, “How can we work together to protect the turtles so they will be there for your sons and daughters, and their sons and daughters?” After several (!) years(!) of steady collaboration, we asked the fishers from the villages around the region to come together and share their extensive knowledge of turtles and their habitats. We talked about the reality of a dwindling number of turtles and the fact that if something wasn’t done, there would be no more turtles to catch. A creative and participatory approach was our only solution.
I want to point out that Jay worked with these communities for YEARS before he even approached the subject of conservation. He mentioned it took about 20 years to see a complete change in the fishers’ behavior and attitude. That’s because he went in with a mindset not to CHANGE these people, but to understand them. THIS is the conservation work of the future and the work I admire the most.
Back in October, I did a Zoo-notable on The Secret Lives of Bats and I learned that Merlin Tuttle, THE bat expert and conservation scientist practices this kind of empathetic conservation as well. He actually enlisted poachers’ help because, well, they knew where the bats were. He never condemned them, but listened to them, empathized with their struggles even if he didn’t share their challenges. Because of his patience and compassion, years later on his return visit, the restaurant that used to serve bats changed its menu, and instead, practiced sustainable eco-tourism, sharing the bats with the tourists and selling bat paraphernalia. Change doesn’t occur when we berate people’s actions. It occurs when we share our passion and enthusiasm in compassionate and empathetic ways. As Nelson Mandela said “Don’t speak to the mind. Speak to the heart.”
Jay comes back to this point in Blue Mind. He tells us “People won’t respond positively when we bore the heck out them with a lot of facts. They won’t respond with action when we make them feel guilty or bad about themselves. Yet that’s exactly what the environmental movement has been doing: scaring people, making them feel bad, and overloading them with data.
Instead of alarming the community and spreading doom and gloom messages, or guilting them into performing actions for conservation (which will only make people view these behaviors as punishment), we need to talk to their hearts. Share stories that touch us, and bring them closer to nature, to the animals, and to motivating them to WANT to change their behavior. That’s how empathy works.
This goes for all life’s challenges. Instead of overwhelming the senses with data you’ve collected on the topic you want to teach, share stories about how this subject has changed you. Let your audience, friend, or family know that it’s not about changing their mind, that’s not important now, it’s just you want to share how this changed YOU. And then, here’s the tough part, LISTEN to their side with an open heart, and an open mind.
Big Idea #3- Creating a Blue Mind Identity
Our perception of ourselves is shaped by the way we actually behave, rather than merely our perception of ourselves. Every time we decide to put our trash into the bin instead of throwing it on the street, for example, it’s yet another confirmation of our identity as someone who cares about the environment. We build our “self” through our actions.Wallace J Nichols- Blue Mind
This makes sense, because we know that consistent actions reshape the pathways in our brains. Every small successful action, recognized and celebrated, makes us feel good and causes us to want more of the same. Such consistent actions can subsequently become habits. Then we no longer have to think about whether we bypass the plastic disposable water bottle in favor of the stainless-steel one to carry with us, or choose the sustainable seafood option on the menu, or carpool or take our bicycles to work as often as possible.
This is actually really powerful life advice. Want to do excellent work in your job, in your community, with your family, and for the planet? It starts with your behavior. BE the TYPE of person who does the things you value.
And yes, it’s about habits, becoming ingrained in us so we don’t even have to think about them. We function on autopilot because it’s just who we are. We are the TYPE of person who doesn’t consume items in single-use plastic containers. We are the TYPE of person brings their own grocery bags to the store. We are the TYPE of person who goes to bed at 9 pm (even when there’s lots to do) so they can get a full 8 hours of sleep.
What’s your identity? What are some of your behaviors you can incorporate to BECOME the TYPE of person you wish to be in this world?
Big Idea #4—Blue Mindfulness
Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who has been the subject of several studies on the neuroscience of happiness, meditation, and mindfulness, agreed to participate in an experiment to examine the neural signature of compassion. The research team asked Ricard to “immerse himself” in compassion practices while his brain was scanned using fMRI imaging. While seeing images depicting human suffering, none of the “empathy for pain” circuits in Ricard’s brain were activated. Instead, his brain lit up areas associated with positive emotions, affiliation, love, and reward. When asked to focus on sharing the pain of others’ suffering, Ricard promptly exhibited emotional empathy, but after a very short time, he became emotionally exhausted and “burnt out.” Continuing with the experiment, Ricard shifted his emotions to “compassion” rather than simply empathy. While empathy and compassion are on a continuum of connections, compassion moves from “feel your pain” to “heal your pain.” As Ricard’s scan progressed, his readings indicated that the pain circuits were turned off and the positive areas of the brain associated with compassion were turned back on. “Engaging in compassion meditation completely altered my mental landscape,” Ricard said.Wallace J Nichols- Blue Mind
I’ll admit when I first read Blue Mind, I found this segment perplexing. If switching your brain from empathy to compassion improves your resiliency against burnout, should we be calling our infliction with burnout EMPATHY fatigue rather than compassion fatigue?
Well, no. Empathy can drain us QUICKLY, without compassion to back it up. When we shift from FEELING others’ pain to HEALING their pain, we become a more heroic version of ourselves. A hero has strength for two, they are more resilient. However, if we aren’t taking time to love and care for OURSELVES, even heroes will burn out. THIS is the level of compassion fatigue. That’s how strong it is, and why it’s such a detrimental aspect to the animal care field, and other care professions.
Once again, though, there are simple things we can do to promote our personal compassion for ourselves, while helping the planet and our community.
From Blue Mind: “A 2008 study found that as little as seven minutes of “loving-kindness” meditation increases feelings of closeness and social connection between subjects and photos of complete strangers. On the neuroscience side, those who practice loving-kindness meditation or participated in compassion training demonstrate a greater understanding of others’ emotions and greater executive control.”
The thing about loving kindness meditation is it STARTS by sending not the world, not strangers, not even your close friends and loved ones loving kindness. It starts by sending YOURSELF loving kindness.
May I feel safe and protected. May I be happy and content. May I be healthy and whole. May I be at peace.
I frequently say we can’t take care of others until we start taking care of ourselves. A hero DOES have strength for two, the more you love yourself, the more love you have to give to others. The more compassion you show yourself, the more you have to share with the world.
How can you be a little more compassionate with your heroic version of yourself, starting today?
Big Idea #5- Water doesn’t heal everyone
My worldview was scrambled. The ocean DOESN’T HELP EVERYONE? Medical researchers reminded me that while many people experience positive emotions around the ocean and other natural spaces, and have a sense of awe about water, others may have a strong fear response. Some people, growing up in completely man-made environments, develop aversions and even fears about what they view as dirty, untamed, and dangerous natural environments.Wallace J. Nichols- Blue Mind
For context, Jay tells a story of him enjoying a gorgeous day along the coast and passed by a man with a box. He smiled and said hi, but nothing more. Several minutes later, a commotion about a man who collapsed grabs Jay’s attention. As a trained EMT, he goes to see if he can help until emergency services arrives, but the man is already dead. It’s the same man Jay passed on his walk. The box contained a gun, and the man had shot himself.
Jay felt devastated, but not as bad as when discussing the incident with police, they admitted that many people contemplating suicide come to the coast to go through their act. It’s difficult to get the nerve to kill yourself, and ironically, the calm offered by the ocean helps people relax enough to do so.
For this Zoo-notable, I didn’t just read Blue Mind, I listened to Nichols read his stories, research, and I FELT his deep love of water. When I got to this last story, my eyes welled up. I feel a little of Jay’s disbelief that something so profoundly inspiring, healing, and rejuvenating to me can have such a negative effect on others.
As I pondered on this idea, I realized that’s also what makes the world such an amazing place. My sacred space is water, there’s no denying that. I feel alive when I am near the water. Water, and especially the ocean, is positive reinforcement to me.
But what is reinforcing to me isn’t necessarily so for everyone. This is why when I discuss positive reinforcement with clients and ZooFit participants, I am careful not to tell them what to use as incentives and motivation (although I’m pretty adamant about NOT using food since positive reinforcement is not a burger after the gym). What I find reinforcing is not an incentive for everyone (I know, SHOCKER!). And that reminds me of another important message from the ocean, so to speak. Everyone’s path and everyone’s journey is unique. Not everyone is going to love water the way I do, just as I’m sure many people love Big City life, which I find frustrating and overwhelming.
I had an interesting realization several days ago while attending a volunteer training workshop. Someone asked how to “deal” with people who didn’t believe in climate change. It’s so hard for me to understand how this is still an issue, but I do recognize there are people in this world who don’t trust the science, and since THEY themselves are not experiencing the harsh realities of climate change (or it’s not obvious to them), then it’s non-existent. So, I have to shift my perspective, practice mindful empathy and appeal to what is important to them. Their health? Their family? Their financial security? All these are impacted by consumer choices we make, and are actions that just happen to benefit the planet. You don’t have to believe in climate change to care about the food you eat, or the water you drink, or where you send your hard-earned dollars. Jay says it best in Blue Mind when reaching out about ocean and water conservation: “We need to remember that we all deeply love our homes and each other—and when we take a moment to consider how very much we do, it can stir us to our core.” As much as I can’t believe climate change is a political issue, I understand how the ocean teaches us to still embrace, go with the flow, and empathize with each and every single person.
There were dozens of quotable statements throughout this book, but I feel the best way to wrap this up is how Jay himself ends Blue Mind:
All I really want to say is this:Wallace J Nichols- Blue Mind
Get in the water.
Walk along the water. Move across its surface. Get under it. Sit in it. Leap into it. Listen to it. Touch the water. Close your eyes and drink a big glass.
Fall more deeply in love with water in all its shapes, colors, and forms. Let it heal you and make you better, stronger version of yourself. You need water. And water needs you now.
I wish you water.