Reflections on Mind and Ocean

words by RJ Roush

I touched upon this subject in my first blog. The acquired feeling of calmness and presence when one is in a remote field camp. It is unparalleled in many ways. We have time to observe our surroundings, to think, and to appreciate it without interruption. We become tied to our environment and its changes in ways that are difficult to replicate in cities or towns. If you take away most appliances, electricity, cars, roads, money, plumbing, internet, and even most of the people then you are left with a simpler existence–more minimalistic yet expansive. I have come to realize that all this holds true on Kure Atoll with an additional piece to the puzzle of serenity: the ocean.

Here on Kure we meet and see the ocean daily. We smell it in the air, we hear its waves as it slaps the sand on the beach, we even breathe it in on the rougher weather days when the wind brings salt spray from white caps. It surrounds us, inundating our lives and, whether we are conscious of it or not, it has a substantial effect on how we think and act.  

Spending time near the ocean often leaves one in a relaxed state. Something about the way water flows, subdued yet forceful, intent on taking its own direction while at the same time yielding to all that comes in its path. Something about the sounds it can create, churning and sloshing, constantly rhythmic and calming. You can follow it with your eyes and will never be looking at the same thing once. If you are like me, you could stare contentedly at the surface of a running stream or the tumult of a shore break for hours. The motions and sounds of water is enough to catch our attention yet holds it at enough of a distance that our minds are free to contemplate other matters. If you live near a body of natural water, then you likely already know what I am talking about. If not, then you should probably visit the nearest lake, river, or ocean to understand what I am trying to describe.

For my family and I, the connection with water was clear. It is an inherited and ingrained connection since I was young. I grew up a five-minute walk from the closest natural water source (albeit a somewhat grimy bay) and we would go to Stinson Beach and Bolinas, CA many times a year. Now that our family is scattered around the country, we still take at least a week out of the year and spend it in the dunes of our favorite beach, doing little more than reading and watching waves. A few weeks back my mother sent me one of her favorite quotes from JFK which attests to this connection we all have:

“I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it’s because in addition to the fact that the sea changes, and the light changes, and ships change, it’s because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea-whether it is to sail or to watch it–we are going back from whence we came.”

Even recently, I came upon an article in Surfer Magazine which describes the work of Dr. Wallace J. Nichols that brings this bond with water into the light of scientific scrutiny. Nichols has taken modern neuroscience technology and applied it to people in and around water to see if there is a scientific reasoning that can measure this feeling. His work is based around the concept of the “Blue Mind” which represents a state characterized by calm, creative, peaceful, and genuinely contented being.

Nichols as well as other researcher’s findings have shown that being in and around water can release a host of different neurochemicals with positive and beneficial effects like dopamine, serotonin, GABA, oxytocin, endorphins, and even endocannabinoids. One can easily take this feeling for granted, but this connection has been readily observed by our species since our origins. The parts of our brain that respond to water and send out signals to release these chemicals are basal, such as the brain stem, and are a link to ancestral mind. And so, I must wonder, if the ocean has this kind of effect on our human minds, what does it do to the seabirds and marine mammals we share this island with? Is this state of mind seen across species?

Of course, there is such a thing as too much “Blue Mind”, and it balances with “Red Mind”. “Red Mind” is brought on by more stressful situations that require immediate response and produces neurochemicals such as norepinephrine, cortisol, and glucocorticoid.  We have more than enough “Red Mind” in today’s media-engorged, consumer-driven, and fast-paced society. A healthy mind is a balance between the two.

On Kure we may be in a state of perpetual “Blue Mind,” but with the conservation work we do daily, we get our fair share of “Red Mind” and stressful situations. Things such as bracing the camp for hurricane force winds or going out in a downpour to see if the runway is flooding can be mentally and physically taxing. Regardless of how much we have done, though, or how difficult the work may have been, I still find myself going to the beach and embracing the water’s medicine at the end of the day. This connection is obvious to me, and likely obvious to many of you as well. Take advantage of it. I will say it again, if you do not know this feeling I have been describing then you should spend some time at your nearest natural body of water and take note of how you feel before and after.

-Original Surfer Magazine article: “Blue Mind” by Maxwell Klinger, June 2015

-Or check out the book if you are really interested: “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do.” by Wallace J. Nichols, Ph.D.

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