Eighteen Questions with Dr. Wallace J. Nichols

This month we are featuring Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, an innovative and entrepreneurial scientist, who we met during the recent Good Housekeeping’s Raise the Green Bar conference. He’s opening remarks immediately drew attention due to the statement: “Emotional health is the basis of sustainability.” Dr. Nichols is Marine Biologist & Founder of Blue Mind.

1. How do you define yourself? I am a Marine biologist, Airbnb super host, water-lover, embarrassing dad and creator of useful words. We/nosotros.

2. What is your favorite animal? Turtles.

3. Where are you from? I was born in New York City, but after looking at the map and noticing all the “blue space” out there, as well as two baseball teams we relocated to the Chicago area where I attended Barrington High School.

4. Where are you based now? I live with my wife Dana, two daughters and some cats, dogs, and chickens in the California’s Slow Coast, a rural stretch of coastal mountains overlooking the Monterey Bay where organic strawberries rule, mountain lions roam and the motto is “In Slow We Trust”. 

5. How did you fall in love with water? Growing up water was my medicine and my friend. I was easily overwhelmed by noises and by crowd, and I actually used to stutter and water was my escape. I didn’t see it that clearly as I do nowadays, but I wanted to be a marine biologist because the job would keep me away from crowds and underwater. 

6. What is the meaning of Blue Mind? Dr. Nichols is a Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences. His most recent work is on BLUEMiND: The Mind + Ocean Initiative, merging the fields of cognitive science and ocean exploration. This is a book that I was trying to find for years so I could read it. In the absence of what I was looking for, I tried convincing people to write it. In one of my attempts, I asked life-long water lover, scientist, communicator, and neurologist Oliver Sacks to do it and he told me “It’s a fine idea, you write it.” After five years of learning, researching, and writing I published the book and it feels like a “spot-on-the-shelve”. Your brain, your mental and emotional health need water and nature. Since then, the conversation about the true value of a healthy river it kind of opened up. If you have a healthy river in your city you are lucky, and if you have a view of it you are super lucky. In the book, I really unpacked how does water and even virtual water depictions, the sound of it, looking at it and being in it help us.

7. How can we raise the Blue Mind? First of all, we have to talk about it. People have a very hard time discussing their mental and emotional health because there’s a stigma attached to it. To make it more approachable, Nichols uses the terminology: Blue MindRed Mind and Grey Mind to define certain states of a mind so it can be discussed in a friendlier manner. If you called it: Blue MindRed Mind and Grey Mind it’s simpler and less threatening. Then the conversation could be around what gives you a Blue Mind or what gives you a Red Mind, what burns you out?

For a little bit more context about these terminologies, A Red Mind is a very high-energy mode. It’s a necessary part of who we are and it allows us to survive. We compete, work hard and want to be first in a Red Mind state. However, in a prolonged state, a Red Mind would burn-you-out.

The constant stimulation of our senses with our interconnectedness and a never-ending flow of information is bad at a cellular level, even at a DNA level. A constant Red Mind would eventually lead you into to a Grey Mind, which is disconnection and mildly and severe depression. A Blue Mind can rescue us from all that.

8. In your view, how could the Blue Mind concept be implemented in our society? We are already experiencing some of the ideas that I see for the future. Many corporations, hotels, and residential buildings are including gymnasiums within their spaces because they recognize the importance of physical health. The counter part of that is what would a Blue Mind gymnasium look like, what kind of center would you put in your building that would help with emotional health, not just physical health. The idea behind this is to help people achieve a Blue Mind because there is where you find the creativity, the calm thoughtfulness and it’s where you find the solutions.

Blue Mind can also be applied to the workplace. There are studies that show the number one cause of stress at work is sound, especially with the new open space layouts. Where there are no walls it harder to keep down the voices of fellow workers.

A recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO), defined workplace burnout or what I call Grey Mind as a global crisis. It’s a big thing that was identified as a modern human phenomenon that’s affecting millions of people’s physical and mental health. Along with that, there’s a huge economic cost, let alone the human and emotional cost. It made the idea of burned-out real.

According to the study, “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed; it is characterized by three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

9. What can people do to achieve a Blue Mind? There are actually many things that people can do. Although this may sound very challenging, people can take their smartphones and use the off bottom, walk outside, walk near water, listen to the sound of water, or even get in the water when possible and your mind will go into what I call the Blue Mind. Things get simplified when you are near or inside the water; a shower in the morning or a bath. In the absence of a natural view or sound, some people feel good with a sound App or a piece of art in the wall that reminds them about their Blue Mind place.

10. Can you put in context the reasons why children are these days showing so many signs of stress and anxiety? Using your terminology, they are having a Grey Mind? There is a combination of overstimulation, the constant use of social media, the social comparisons with the whole world at all times (which when you do that you always loose) and combine that with global problems that we are assuming our kids will solve, it’s no wonder our kids are experiencing burn out, at the very least all this will cause them anxiety. I don’t think we do a good job giving our kids the skills they need to manage technology and handle the stress caused by so much information they have access to nowadays; they just don’t have the coping mechanisms. What if nature is in fact that coping mechanism? It would be great if parents, teachers, and kids use nature as a tool to distress and deal with anxiety. Go to the river, go to a friend’s house, go paddling, etc. Unfortunately, what a lot of people do is that they self medicate.

11. Do you have a hero? One of my heroes is Dr. Michael Merzenich (Professor emeritus neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.)

12. Recommend us a book that you like? There’s a beautiful book from Oliver Sachs, Musicophilia that I recommend. He has been very influential when I was writing my book 

13. What‘s your mantra? I learned from my adopted father that this is a good life: you’re born, you give everything you have and can, and then you die. That’s a good life, simple. 

14. You frequently say that people get their best ideas in the water. Is that how the Live Blue Foundation came to mind? The Live Blue Foundation was created to put Blue Mind science and best practices into action. The goal is to identify leading organizations around the world that reconnect people with water throughout their lives and provide the tools needed to put Blue Mind into action. We want to put awareness into action by letting everyone know about the cognitive, emotional, psychological, social, physical and spiritual benefits of safely getting people near, in, on and underwater. I believe that Blue Mind is part of the toolkit of solutions. Healthy waters help us lead more emotionally and physically resilient lives, and also boost creativity, contentment, collaboration, and general wellness. In turn, people will value their waters and oceans more when they understand and experience these benefits; it’s really a win-win situation.

15.  How would Blue Mind be best implemented in the schools’ curriculum? The Live Blue Foundation is an effort made in partnership with Watershape University, which is an educational institution that provides the highest quality live instruction of business, design, engineering and construction programs to students of all levels in the pool, spa, aquatics, and outdoor living sectors. The grants provided through The Live Blue Foundation would make possible the incorporation of solutions for students and schools through those already involved in recreational water activities and promote other types of well being.

16. Do you always carry your blue marble? Yes, this is a good reminder of my blue mind space!

17. Is there another book coming up? Yes, the Seven Ages of Water is in the making and it will take the readers through a human life cycle, and how our relationship with water changes as we grow.

18. Is there anything else you would like to add? Let’s change the conversation around the true value of ocean, lakes, rivers, and wildlife. Water is medicine for those who need it most.

Giselle Chollett

I’ve always been mindful about my health habits, but in recent years I’ve realized the even bigger role of the environment in the health of everyone on the planet. This has been a source of inspiration to learn more about the contributions we all need to make to preserve our planet. Based on that, many of my habits have changed and I’m certain that I will continue evolving the more I learn about every aspect that impacts the environment: from the origin of our foods, to managing waste at home, doing laundry, using electricity in a smart way, and selecting the most environment-friendly cleaning, beauty, and make-up products. I tend to read and search from different sources, but the usual suspects are National Geographic, many newsletters such as Patagonia, Nutraingredients, news agencies like Reuters and Bloomberg, and newspapers like the NYT and The Wall Street Journal.