If the ocean has a direct, neurological impact on our brains, an awareness of this connection will change the way we treat it—and the policy implications could be profound. That’s the hope, at least, that motivated “neuro-conservationist” and turtle specialist Wallace J. Nichols to invite a group of neuroscientists, marine scientists, journalists and artists to start a conversation about our emotional connection with the sea.

Nichols thinks that our grey matter is actually uniquely tuned into the Big Blue. “When we think of the ocean—or hear the ocean, or see the ocean, or get in the ocean, even taste and smell the ocean, or all of those things at once,” Nichols said in an OnEarth interview, “we feel something different than before that happened. For most people, it’s generally good. It often makes us more open or contemplative. For many people, it reduces stress.”

Nichols aims to tap into this emotional response to oceans—what he calls the Blue Mind—to help build support for responsible stewardship of the world’s marine ecosystems.

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  • Relatively new brain imaging techniques allow researchers to examine otherwise elusive human emotions—empathy, happiness, and compassion, for example—in a scientific way.

    So, how does the ocean work on our brains?

    There’s the sound of ocean waves, for one thing—ubiquitous in yoga studios and “sleep machines” across the land. It’s a sound that’s understood as calming and centering.

    Then there’s nostalgia. We have a fondness for the carefree times we have spent near or on the ocean—if we’re lucky enough to have had those experiences. Whether a drive toward stewardship is triggered by the mere suggestion of the ocean or images or sounds of oceans—or all of the above, time spent at the seashore as a young person might make better ocean conservationists later in life.

    Then there’s our visual appreciation of the sea. If popular vacation destinations are any indication, humans like being near oceans—and not just because of the sand. And there’s also “a premium added to your [real estate], restaurant, hotel room or a cup of coffee—because it comes with an ocean view,” says Nichols.

    Why is that? What’s the big deal? More importantly, as Nichols asks: “How can we use what we learn about the brain as a tool for building empathy?”

    Indeed, this nascent area of study is mostly about questions now. The answers are yet to come.

    From my vantage point, it seems that we romanticize oceans and even ‘worship’ at their shores, but the vast majority of people—even those who live on the coasts and eat copious amounts of seafood—remain largely removed from the very real problems threatening oceans’ health. We are likely even further removed from the policy solutions required to help heal them. In other words, the pull of the oceans is currently more symbolic than material when it comes to support for policies that prevent pollution, over-fishing, ocean acidification and other threats to marine health.

    Nichols is the first to admit that his research won’t amount to a silver-bullet answer to these problems. But the potential is promising. “Look what happens to your brain on the ocean. Doesn’t that feel good?,” says Nichols. If he’s right, we can channel those positive feelings toward self-awareness—and, ideally, political awareness and behavior change.