What makes us so drawn to be on the water? Why do we spend our money, drive for hours, and plan our days just to find time to get wet? The health benefits are great and breathing in the ocean air is bliss. But there must be something more to our passion for water activity. A recent article I read in Outside magazine helped to explain these feelings that are often hard to put into words. Simply put, our brains are wired to enjoy the water.
Wallace J. Nichol’s is a marine biologist who wants to learn what happens to us when we are on, in, or near the ocean. Specifically he wants to understand which brain processes underlie our emotional reactions to the ocean. You know, that insatiable urge to get salty! Nichol’s goal is to find out exactly why we love the ocean so that we can use that as a tool to protect it through public policy.
These same neurological findings can help explain our own obsession with being on the water. It is interesting to think that there is specific wiring in our brain that helps us to feel so warm and fuzzy when we are on our paddle board.
Michael Merzenich, professor of neuroscience at UC San Francisco, suggests that our attraction to the ocean may derive from its lack of physical markers. On land, we are constantly mapping our environment in our minds so we can pick out dangers among landmarks. Paddling across a calm body of water is similar to closing our eyes for meditation. On the open ocean we do not have all of the scattered chaos found on land. When something does emerge on the surface during our paddle, we are immediately captivated. No longer do we have to constantly scan our environment for the next threat.
A calm environment might help to explain why I prefer to paddle out in the open ocean as opposed to being confined to the narrow intra-coastal. My favorite thing to do is to pick a spot on the horizon and paddle for it. Here I am surrounded by water and completely relaxed.
The water has many physical and mental benefits that keep us coming back for more. Neuroscientists will continue to study the mind-ocean connection to help us better understand the world we live in. Influencing public policy and providing an explanation for our urge to SUP are great applications of their work. Like the marine scientist Nichol’s, we can use our love for the water to be a positive force in ocean conservation. Stand up paddlers are already having a huge impact on this effort.
Check out the work from a few of the many organizations below.
Conservation projects created by stand up paddlers.
For the Oustide Magazine article visit: http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/nature/The-Touchy-Feely-But-Totally-Scientific-Methods-Of-Wallace-J-Nichols.html?page=all
More information on Nichol’s blue mind project: www.bluemarbles.org