Mar. 29, 2012Vol. 42, Issue 5

See Turtles: Take Action! Marine Biologist Brings Science of Neurology to Marine Biology

Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols brought a bagful of blue marbles and an exciting approach to ocean conservation to Chico during his keynote presentation at the This Way to Sustainability VII Conference on March 1. Nichols, who has spearheaded several initiatives aimed at conserving the oceans and its inhabitants, introduced the idea of a new blended science: marine biology and neurobiology.

Nichols knows that the ocean makes people feel better—he says, “Just ask anyone.” He believes that that phenomenon of health and well being that comes through spending time at the ocean and with wild creatures can be a powerful tool in recruiting humans to actively work for conservation. The positive emotions that accompany thinking about the ocean can be used to sell the need for its survival, just as marketers have been using positive emotions to sell consumer products to us for half a century.

To use positive emotions for conservation, said Nichols, we need to understand how our own brains work and how they can work better on nature. Environmentalists have shied away from emotional language because it is unscientific. Actually, said Nichols, the relationship between our brains and psychology, our physical health, and our environment is being increasingly researched.

“To connect this blended science with students who are interested in the environment and conservation and sustainability could put universities at the forefront of some of this work,” said Nichols. “Applied neuroscience is new. Applying it to the environmental field is new.”

Nichols’ background as a marine biologist engendered a lot of thinking about the ocean and ocean conservation and restoring populations of endangered turtles. He thought a lot about changing peoples’ behavior toward the ocean. Like many marine biologists, he chose his field because he loved the ocean.

“We became marine biologists because we love the ocean. Yet to talk about that has been seen as soft and unscientific. We were afraid that it would undermine our credibility,” said Nichols, who has a doctorate in evolutionary biology. “Yet, if our brains evolved and our emotions evolved, this should be an arena that can be discussed with conservation science.

“Once I started reading neuropsychology and cognitive sciences, I realized that no one in the cognitive sciences was talking about the ocean, even though it is the single largest feature of our planet. I was looking for the overlap between marine science and cognitive science, and I didn’t find it. So, it presents a huge opportunity and a new set of questions.”

Nichols wants to inspire students to pursue those questions. Here are a few of the big questions and Nichols’ comments on them:

  1. Why does the ocean make us feel good? What is going on in the human brain when you come over the hill and see the ocean? We haven’t looked at that. People have written about it and made art and literature and films about the inspiration we get, but we really don’t know much about what happens. There is an emotional shift when you look at the ocean. For most people it is a positive thing (a small number say they don’t like it). But you can look at it in terms of economics and the monetary value of an ocean view: a partial view increases property prices by 10 percent, and they go on up to 100 percent if you have an unobstructed view. If we are learning that there is a public health value in going and looking and being near ocean—that it reduces stress and promotes exercise— it should be available to everyone, not just people who can afford access to it. The balance sheet for quantifying benefits of nature is incomplete; we haven’t put on the list all of the cognitive benefits of nature.
  2. How can we use positive addiction to help people form relationships with nature? One of the things we looked at during the “BLUEMIND” conference [the first one was held in June at the Academy of Sciences with 100 ocean explorers and neuro-scientists] was positive addiction. The model for the conference was to pair people from different fields together. Neuroscientist Howard Fields from UC San Francisco, who studies the brain and pleasure, was standing with pioneer surfer Jeff Clark, who was the first person to surf at Mavericks. They talked about what goes on in Clark’s head when he is surfing. The question is about whether we can rewire and change the brain. It is hard, but doable, and one of the tools that helps us create habit is addiction—positive addiction (such as surfing) can be really good.
  3. How can we learn more about the economic and power issues that are driving extinctions of certain seafood (tuna, turtle, shark)? There is a new phenomenon of buying certain seafood, no matter how high they are priced—there is no economic signal that stops us. For example, one blue-fin tuna recently sold in Tokyo for $700,000. That has never happened before. It isn’t cultural tradition; it’s a new phenomenon. Breaks all the rules. What are the emotions that would drive somebody to spend that kind of money? Some people would call it a power addiction. What do we know about power addiction? That conversation is not happening in fishing circles. We need to reframe some of these situations in terms of the new findings.
  4. How do we apply what we know about decision making to conservation? And how do we increase our knowledge about how we make decisions and the role of emotion in decision making? There is neuro/political research out of UC San Diego that looks at how our brains become politically aligned. The results were surprising—this particular researcher found that if you present someone with information that you think would be convincing, it can sometimes serve to push them away. We need to be able to connect this kind of information to the much bigger picture of how we make decisions. Author Antonio Damasio, for example, writes about the error in Descartes’ statement, “I think, therefore, I am.” Damasio says that we use both emotion and reason in all of our decisions. All decision making has an emotional component.

In addition to his work as a researcher, Nichols spends much of his time and energy helping people get connected with nature. The ecotourism project See Turtles, for example, provides people with transformative experiences, not just for the traveler, said Nichols, but for the people who live in those destination places.

“People go on a trip and have experiences they’ve never had before and become newly committed and reconnected to changing the way they live,” said Nichols. “A lot of people have really important experiences when they interact with sea turtles. Turtles are wild. You release a turtle into the ocean, and it does something to you. To get that close to a wild animal is rare. There is a sense with sea turtles that anything can happen.”

Kathleen McPartland, Public Affairs and Publications