May 5, 2015


Mission Blue had the pleasure of catching up with Dr. Wallace J Nichols, water scientist, conservationist, best-selling author and leader of the Blue Mind movement. With the 5th annual Blue Mind Summit coming up this month in Washington DC and the release of his best-selling book, Blue Mind, in paperback, we had a lot to discuss. Read on to learn more about Nichols’ remarkable Blue Mind movement and the growing understanding of how water helps us in more ways than you might imagine.

So tell us more about the Blue Mind Summit. What’s happening this year?

This year it’s in Washington DC and the theme is “Urban Blue”. Most people in the world live in big coastal towns or cities and thus interact, or have the great opportunity to interact, with the urban blue. At this year’s Summit, we are bringing together a group of fascinating experts to discuss the connection between cities and their waterways. This topic isn’t usually discussed at conservation events, but it’s very important as we grow an inclusive blue movement.

Typically the conference is focused on bringing cognitive scientists together with people involved in the Blue Movement to better understand human behavior with the help of the most cutting-edge researchers in the world. We’ve had some pretty astounding neuroscientists and psychologists participate over the past 5 years and that’s lead to some of the great new research that’s being conducted now. In describing the value of oceans and waterways, we do an incomplete job when we leave out the cognitive, emotional, psychological and social benefits we derive from healthy water. Carrying that conversation forward and keeping it international and inclusive is what the Blue Mind Summit is all about. The book is part of that effort. We’re bringing a whole new realm of science to bear on the question of ocean and waterway conservation and restoration.

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So why Urban Blue?

The vast majority of the planet lives within 100 miles of the coast. We are generally settled in the blue zones of the planet for obvious reasons. It’s easier to do commerce when you can move things on water. And having a source of water is also important to basic survival. That’s the way we’ve settled the planet.

If we undervalue the water that our cities are built near, then we tend to disrespect and degrade it. And when it’s degraded we lose these benefits that the water provides for us and the other animals that utilize it.

So there are many ways to live blue, to live in a more blue-minded way, when you happen to live in proximity to water. It raises questions of how your cities are designed. It brings into the discussion urban planning and architecture. How is open space created? How is run-off managed? How is energy used?

Very cool! What’s an illustrative example?

The city of Pittsburgh, like many others around the world, for much of its history treated its rivers as a combination of garbage dump and toilet. As a result, people had turned their backs on the rivers. They were really just dumping zones, not places to enjoy or visit for personal or emotional restoration. Now, in the last decade or so, they’ve changed their orientation and changed the way the city is designed leading to a cleaning up of the rivers, which is resulting in economic gains as well as social gains. People now go to the edge of the river to eat lunch. They go to the edge of the river to have events like weddings. Kids drop kayaks in the river. This matters to the health of the citizens of Pittsburgh. The cognitive, emotional, psychological and social benefits in Pittsburgh, a city on the confluence of two rivers, are enhanced because they are taking a Blue Mind approach to urban planning. It’s obvious to anyone walking the waterfront that a good change is underway.

And so, given that most people live in cities and most of those cities are next to water, it behooves us to get people in touch with their urban water, their Urban Blue.

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Tell us about the programming you have set up for the Blue Mind Summit.

The speakers on the panel reflect the Urban Blue theme really well. The closing keynote this year is a professor from the University of Virginia, Tim Beatley. He wrote a book called Blue Urbanism, from which we’ve derived the theme of the conference. He’s giving the closing keynote on designing cities to be more blue-minded while also reflecting on the discussions throughout the day — a big job!

We have four panels that each has a neuroscientist or psychologist anchoring the conversation and then additional water practitioners rounding out the team The first panel is on The Neuroscience of Storytelling: why our brains prefer and recall stories to a pile of information. That panel is going to explore “the new story of water”, as we define all the ways water is important to our lives.

The second panel is on the Science of Sleep: exploring why being near the water helps us rest and sleep. There is some really great new research coming out of the University of Tulsa, from a neuroscientist named Justin Feinstein who will be presenting some of his preliminary work. Also on that panel is a veteran named Bobby Lane who served in Iraq and suffers from PTSD. Because of that disorder he has a really hard time sleeping. Yet, he got his first night of sleep in two years after spending the day on the ocean learning to surf. He got his life back because he started spending time on the water.

The third panel is on the Science of Submergence: what happens to your brain and body when you go underwater? Bruce Becker, who is a medical doctor and physiologist is the scientist on that panel. James Nestor, who wrote a book called Deep about free diving, is also joining that panel. Anne Doubilet is bringing her story about being a National Geographic underwater photographer as well.

The last panel is on the Science of Solitude, which is something that you often don’t have much of when you live in the city. There is a stressful aspect to urban life, not to mention the technology that seems to always keep us connected and stimulated. The head of the psychology department at the University of Virginia is a guy named Tim Wilson who studies solitude, or the lack thereof, and what that means for our brains and our lives. The panel will be discussing how water in its various forms is a source of solitude and a break for your brain — and why that’s important to proper brain development and our emotional wellbeing. Polar explorer Matt McFadyen will offer insights as well.

Those four panels connect with each other and connect with the urban blue theme. And we’re holding the conference in a city, Washington DC. The conference is about water, not just the ocean. It’s a blue conference rather than just an ocean conference. The fifth Blue Vision Summit follows Blue Mind, uniting the nation’s leading water advocates.

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Where in your opinion is some of the most interesting research happening?

There are a lot of people around the world who are suffering tremendously from an overload of stress, whether it’s PTSD or chronic psychological stress. And we know that stress is related to almost every illness and disease that we’re dealing with as a society. Some of the most exciting research is advancing the idea that being near water — a pond down the street, the waterfall in your office lobby, the San Francisco Bay — that your water is medicine. Being by water changes our brain chemistry. We now have the studies that show that. We’re starting to see medical doctors include Blue Mind in their toolkit. That’s exciting because it helps people live better lives. To me as an ocean conservationist, it’s also exciting because we haven’t talked about these ideas much as conservationists. We’ve overlooked Blue Mind almost entirely. I don’t know exactly why we resist this conversation. But it’s another huge value that a healthy ocean has for society: the cognitive, emotional, psychological and social benefits. Whether it’s reducing stress, boosting creativity or increasing empathy, there is science that suggests all these things happen…and much more.

Tell us about the bigger Blue Mind movement?

It’s about expanding the dialogue, instead of just trying to convince people that biodiversity is important or talking about jobs, seafood or oxygen — which we k now are all very important. But we also know that people don’t always pay attention to those things. So we can also talk about the ocean being good for creativity, for stress reduction, for building community, for increasing empathy and so on. Blue Mind extends the conversation in a way that reaches way more people, that’s the goal. And that’s what’s happening. We’ve been invited to bring Blue Mind to architecture conferences, hospice conferences, conservation and water related conferences. It’s really interesting to see the doors that are opening to the blue movement as a result of meeting people where they actually live and experience water in their emotional lives, rather than in some theoretical or abstract place where they don’t live. And that comes back to the Urban Blue theme. Most people live in cities. So let’s talk about that. What does that mean relative to their local waterways? This conversation is really expanding the reach of the Blue Movement.

Blue Mind has expanded the Blue Movement into six big sectors that have serious skin in the game: Health and Well-Being; Education and Parenting; Arts, Design and Architecture; Real Estate and Planning; Travel and Leisure; Sports and Recreation. Imagine if realtors, nurses, architects and teachers had bluer minds!

We are seeing right now a decade of compelling new research that is being put right into the hands of policy makers, doctors, communicators, economists and more that will help us do our jobs better – help us understand and communicate the importance of water to us as humans.

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We want to learn more! When is the paperback of Blue Mind coming out?

The paperback comes out in July and it has an additional reader’s guide added to it, which makes it useful to classes, workshops and reading groups. It’s being used as a textbook in, not just ocean conservation classes, but at nursing schools and urban planning courses and various other graduate programs. We’re actually looking at doing a massive open online course (MOOC) in 2016 based on the book, inviting neuroscientists who are featured in the book to come and lecture. We will make it available to people around the world to participate.

Learn more at


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