David Lauderdale

Brain waves: How to make people live like they love the ocean

Bluffton resident Jean Tanner took this photo of her granddaughter Cheryl in 1989 enjoying a day at the beach on Hilton Head Island.
Bluffton resident Jean Tanner took this photo of her granddaughter Cheryl in 1989 enjoying a day at the beach on Hilton Head Island.

What happens in the brain that makes people happy at the beach?

Scientist Wallace J. Nichols of California believes if we knew that, we could get more people to help save the ocean.

Nichols is a sea turtle biologist with a doctorate, and a friend and colleague of Sally R. Murphy of Sheldon, who for decades conserved sea turtles for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

But Nichols is pushing for scientific data on the more fuzzy nature of man -- like what pulls us, generation after generation, to the seashore.

"Economists, marketers and politicians recognize that deep-seated, inscrutable emotions, not rationality, are what rule human behavior," Nichols writes in a Huffington Post blog. "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."

He says the lessons of cognitive neuroscience also should be used for ocean conservation.

"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?"

Scientists of many disciplines have tackled the issue for the past two years at "BLUEMiND Summits" organized by Nichols. He calls the field "neuroconservation." It's part of his movement called " LiVBLUE: Live Like You Love The Ocean."

Murphy said that for her, the same feelings are triggered by looking across a marsh vista.

Journalist Barry Yeoman gives a good overview on the new science in the February edition of Coastal Living magazine.

Acoustics are part of the allure: pleasant, rhythmic sounds as opposed to airplane noise. The flat plane of the ocean's surface, the fathomless deep, the tactile sensation of sand between our toes, the closeness to nature, and our activities when we get to the beach are all dissected by scientists, sometimes with the help of laboratory mice.

Much of it is beyond the blue horizon of my brain.

But I understand why the rewards of a walk of the beach last much longer than the walk. Scientist Scott Huettel speaks of "intermediate-level complexity" and "negative ions" before putting it this way:

"It's trite, but it's not the stuff you have. It's the memories you make."

Related content

  2. Coastal Living magazine
  3. BLUEMiND: This is your brain on ocean
  4. The sea brings us together in joy, tragedy