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The Science Behind Our Love For Water

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October 29, 2014 1:07 p.m.

The Science Behind Our Love For Water


Wallace J. Nichols, marine biologist and author of Blue Mind.

Pedro Villegas, Community Relations Director for SDG&E, sponsor of the watershed summit.

Related Story: The Science Behind Our Love For Water


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When it comes to equating a good life with being close to water, you will not get much argument here in San Diego. Many of us spend part of every day at the beach in the surf, or along the shore. Our nearness to the bay and the ocean is a defining part of life here. According to the author of the best selling book Blue Mind, that may be an even greater advantage to our lives than our San Diego sunshine. Author Wallace J Nichols is going to give the keynote address at the watershed Summit tomorrow. His New York Times best selling book is called Blue Mind, the surprising science that shows how being near, in, on, or underwater can make you happier, healthier, more connected, and better at what you do. Welcome to the program.

WALLACE J NICHOLS: After that long subtitle, you almost feel you don't need to read the book, do you? It is all there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's a nice review of what the book is about, I have to give you that. I have to also welcome Pedro Villegas. Welcome to the program.

PEDRO VILLEGAS: Thank you very much, it is great to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Your book has made a lot of people take a closer look at their relationship to the water. Give us background on how the idea for the book came about.

WALLACE J NICHOLS: I am like everyone who grew up by the water on the East Coast of New Jersey, and then I made my way out to California. Everywhere I have lived, water has been an important part of my life. I became a Marine biologist. It turns out, as a scientist we were not supposed to talk about the feelings and the emotional connection to water. But it seems strange, is that was the reason I became a Marine biologist in the first place. If I looked around the room, it would be the same story with most of the others in the room.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you are not supposed to talk about it?

WALLACE J NICHOLS: Strange, I know. What is it about water that draws us and makes us feel inclined to devote our lives to restoring it? I looked into that, and by plan was to check a book out of the library, and it was not in the library. I planned to get someone else to write it, and I was not successful. So I decided to roll up my sleeves and hang out with neuroscientists, attend their conferences, interviews psychologists, and start to connect the dots. It took five years, I finished the book and got it published, and it hit a sweet spot. People really resonated with the idea. It is an intuitive idea, That being by or in the water makes us feel good.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Give us an overview of what your book tells us that being near the water does for people.

WALLACE J NICHOLS: The first thing is to recognize that you get from being near the water, what I call Blue Mind, is real. It is biology and chemistry, it is physiology, it does not fall out of the sky into your head or your body, it is not pretend, it is real science. You start to unpack and figure out what that is, and when we are in the studio here, in our offices, or in traffic, our lives are stressful. At least we are stimulated, constantly bombarded with different kinds of information. When we step out to the water we let that go, it is quieter, the sound is more rhythmic, and we step away from language and the noise of traffic. Visually, there is a lot less stimulation, but there is enough interesting stuff to go on to hold our attention. At the edge of the water, we go into a mildly meditative state without getting bored. We are fascinated. Scientists call that soft fascination. We are held in this place where there is enough information and enough relaxation that it lasts a long time. You can sit in a quiet room with blue walls and radio static and you would get really bored. But out by the water, boredom does not set in and you sustain relaxation.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you to read something from your book.

WALLACE J NICHOLS: Beyond our evolutionary linkage to water, humans have deep emotional ties to being in its presence. Water delights and inspires us, it consoles and intimidates us. It creates feelings of all, peace, and joy. The Beach Boys, catch a wave and you are sitting on top of the world. In a most all cases, when humans think of water, hear water, see water, get in water, even taste and smell water, they feel something. These emotional responses to our environment arise from the oldest parts of our brain. In fact, it can occur before cognitive response arises. To understand our relationship to the environment, we must understand both cognitive and emotional interactions with it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You say in your book that there have been scientific studies done to actually document the effects of being near water, physiologically and psychologically.

WALLACE J NICHOLS: There is a lot of research on the brain and a lot of fields, music, stress, irritation, happiness. This month's issue of Scientific American, the cover story is the neuroscience of meditation. Universities around the world are beginning clinical research and medical schools are realizing this has potential public health benefits, benefits for young people who are leading increasingly distracted lives and increasingly connected lives. Has relevance to our sense of privacy, awe, and wonder. The more we understand the science behind that, the better we can live our lives.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I guess the first question, Pedro, what does SDG&E have to do with the county watershed?

PEDRO VILLEGAS: First of all, we are 4400 employees at SDG&E. We live like everyone else, across San Diego County, and we love going to our watersheds where there are wetlands, the coast, you name it. We are there on the weekends just like everyone else. Secondly, we support a lot of environmental nonprofits in San Diego County. A lot of them specialize in bringing the wonders of being in our watersheds to kids. They do extraordinary things to get kids to become environmental stewards, and really the owners of these resources and taking care of them. We realize that we are in a unique, privileged position in the county. We have a perspective because we serve every corner of the county, but we realize that these nonprofits do not know what the water said that doing, and there are 11 of them in the county. We decided last year that we would sponsor a summit, where folks could learn from each other, we would have panels to talk about how to get kids into the watersheds, and the best practices for taking care of watersheds. We discovered in the lagoon summit that there were a lot more stakeholders that went all the way up the water showed up to the mountains and places like that, that said us to, we want in. You think about it, you have nonprofits, cities, counties, state and federal agencies, you have got community groups, that might live in a neighborhood that borders a watershed. They come together in this summit, and it is a learning experience. Overall, I think the goal of it is that we can learn from each other, and electively be better environmental stewards.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You answered a lot of the questions I had about the purpose of the summit and why all of these groups are intending this summit, physically groups checking in and seeing what the groups are doing as a collection of information about the entire San Diego County watershed. SDG&E got involved in this I believe as a sort of medication for the water that San Onofre was going to be putting into the ocean, of course, San Onofre is not really a factor, or won't be shortly in any kind of water mitigation projects. Is SDG&E still going to be maintaining this relationship with the watershed?

PEDRO VILLEGAS: Of course. The project you're referring to is the San Dieguito Lagoon. That is, if you're going up the five or down the five, you exit down Via De la Valle, there are 55 acres down there that are restored. That is just one project on one watershed. We actually have interest in supporting nonprofits across all 11 independent of that project. I am glad that you brought that up, that is an excellent story on restorative ecology, where the community got together on the back of mitigation for the San Onofre nuclear generating station project. They took an area that used to be in airfield, that had underground fuel tanks. They completely restored it to a wetland, and you can go and walk there and I invite everyone to walk it when you can. Mother nature has rewarded the community in that area by tripling the number of species. It is teeming with fish, and it is now a very important stop for migrating birds to go up and down North America.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Jay Nichols, what message are you going to bring to the summit?

WALLACE J NICHOLS: The main thing I think I can add, we are doing the Ayala G and the ecology, we know how to do the restoration, we know that is good for jobs and the economy. We know that it makes the coast more valuable, but it also gives us cognitive, emotional, psychological and social benefits. We often leave that out of the conversation. That is the main point. You restore a wetland, and it becomes the place you can go with your kids and have a great conversation or fall in love with your loved ones. We can clear your mind, get creative, write a song or solve a problem you have been wrestling with, or maybe just reduce your stress because your life is stressful. Having these open spaces by water raise all of that to our lives. I want to add that 10 years ago I walked from Oregon to Mexico down the coast. I know every foot of the California coast, and the work to protect and restore the remaining wetlands is vehicle, and I want to highlight and think everybody involved in any way whatsoever in that work, cause I got to witness the beauty, productivity, the university, and all the joy on the faces of the people out there spending time in that space.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Did you get to witness what remains to be done?

WALLACE J NICHOLS: There is plenty more to do and opportunities to take back space that has been wrecked, and to take back the land and restore its. We need to do it. There is pressure in both directions, and obviously there is pressure to build more housing, and people want to be by the coast cost of the irony of this, is that it feels good and people want to be about the coast, maybe we can fill in the wetlands so we can be by the coast. We need to step back, create public spaces, make sure that public access is intact, and make sure wild spaces are restored and protected.

PEDRO VILLEGAS: That was good question that you asked. I have to say, a story has developed. The San Diego River park foundation is a conservancy, which is purchasing land all the way up the San Diego River, up into the mountains, and creating a river park in that area. It's a good example of how we can take these lands back and we can actually restore them to former glory or creates new glory of them. That is happening now, and the folks at the Riverpark Conservancy deserve a great deal of credit. There are others, the Escondido Creek Conservancy, a great story done by the Altai River, and it is happening here. We invite everyone to participate in that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Something I should point out about Blue Minds, your extolation about being near the water, it is not just about being near the ocean or a lake. It is all sorts of water.

WALLACE J NICHOLS: All sorts of water, from a glass of water cut to the great Pacific Ocean, and everything in between.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What can a glass of water do?

WALLACE J NICHOLS: Try it. The next time that you fill a glass of water, take time and pay attention to the water, this into it as it is going into the glass and enjoy it, and pay attention in a different way. I do not have to say anything other than that. But when you are in the bathtub, in the shower, and obviously with as many friends as possible these days, conserving water, enjoy it. People sing in the shower, they are inspired and from ways. Some people say I get my best ideas in the bath, the shower, while swimming, while walking on the beach. Why is that? Because you got your Blue Mind on, and stepped away from your red mind. You activated a different part of your brain. The red mind is our agitated, overstimulated, connected, generally the norm of modern society where you way, to the sound of your phone and immediately you are into it, into the messages, the text, and the phone calls. Sometimes you do not get away from it until the moment you fall asleep. A lot of people live that way, always connected and always on. There are a lot of people studying the potential long-term effects of that kind of existence of the screen-based lifestyle. Blue Mind is not that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, in conclusion, do you surf?

WALLACE J NICHOLS: Yes, I love to do any water sports I can participate in.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I just felt very strongly like I am speaking to a surfer. That same spiritual connection with water has come across in many conversations I have had with surfers in the past, that they have never extended it to a glass of water. Thank you both very much.