Highlight: Wallace J. Nichols

By May 19, 2015Highlight

Dr. Wallace “J.” Nichols is a scientist, wild water advocate, movement-maker, New York Times bestselling author, and dad. He takes a slow, collaborative approach with leaders in businesses, government, nonprofits, and academia to inspire a deeper connection with nature and inventive solutions to pressing issues. J. knows that inspiration comes sometimes through adventures, or simply by walking and talking. Other times through writing, images, and art. Science and knowledge can also stoke our fires. But he also knows that what really moves people is feeling part of and touching something bigger than ourselves.

Read more about J here.

Evermaven asked J.:

EM: You’re a scientist, a wild water advocate, a movement-maker, a New York Times bestselling author, and a dad. But, I often think of you first as a communicator? Can you explain this to me?

WJN: There was a point when I was a grad student working towards my PhD in Evolutionary Biology and Wildlife Ecology that I realized that if I couldn’t communicate my ideas I was much less useful than I hoped to be. I had a problem with stuttering, especially when speaking in public, which led to a general shyness or tendency to seek solitude in the lab or in nature. I could tell that when listening to me speak people became uncomfortable, exacerbating the stuttering…making them even more uncomfortable, etc (a truly horrible little negative feedback loop). Through much practice—by giving the same talk over and over (100+ times) about sea turtles to various kindergarten classes—I learned to pause when I felt a stammer coming on. The kids were forgiving and my confidence as a communicator grew! One day a teacher said “you’re a good communicator”, which were words I’d never had directed my way before. Since then I’ve paid close attention to and learned from people I consider to be really good communicators across many different sectors. I’ve also endeavored to learn how top media gatekeepers do their jobs and what they need from scientists. One day an editor called me an “honest broker” and I decided that I liked that moniker. I’m still learning daily, especially when it comes to film and social media.

EM: Let’s jump right in. You recently published Blue Mind, a book that connects neuroscience and psychology, nature and conservation, art and science, poetry and practice in profoundly important new ways. The result of your first New York Times bestselling book is a contribution to an emerging, fast-growing new field we call neuroconservation. The book also hints at new research and more discoveries about “blue space” yet to come. In a nutshell, what is this blue mind all about?

WJN: For my whole life I’ve observed that nature brings out the best in me. When I think about the best version of myself, I see a kid or a man near, in, on or under water, smiling. Through many conversations I learned that I’m not at all alone in feeling this way. Realizing that the cognitive, emotional, psychological, and social benefits of healthy waterways and nature in general were generally missing from discussions and teaching about environmental conservation, I searched the library and bookshops for a book that might explain the human-water relationship in more depth. I didn’t find the book I was searching for so tried to convince others to write it. I was unsuccessful at that too. So, by default or as a last resort I researched and wrote Blue Mind. It’s an attempt to frame some new questions, organize, and connect the dots that fall nearest to answering them, and hopefully motivate young scientists to work to study neuroconservation.

EM: The subtitle of Blue Mind is 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. Why is the subtitle so long? Are you trying to get at something here?

WJN: The answer is kind of funny: I Initially wrote the subtitle as a placeholder and sort of a working outline of the book. When it came time to finalize the title it had grown on me and my editor so much we decided to just leave it. It also tells you a lot about the book right up front, which is a good thing because most people in fact will only read the cover!

EM: I’m a visual thinker, so explain to me why you use the image of earth from space in your public speaking talks so much?

WJN: The most reproduced photographic image is a famous shot of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft, at a distance of about 45,000 kilometers. It’s the the first photograph of our entire planet. I think the reason we love it so much is because it’s our home and it’s largely a photo of water. It’s an exceedingly important perspective, but one very few people will personally experience. It’s great to shift an audience’s point of view to one that includes the idea that we live on a small, fragile, water planet–with no Planet B.

EM: So then, it is fair to also call you a communicator?

WJN: Yes, that seems fair.

EM: How important is communication in your work?

WJN: The basic three-part model I use to organize my work includes building diverse networks (engaging), generating new knowledge (understanding), and communicating widely (sharing). So, you could say the importance of communication is 33%.

EM: How important is communication in scientific work?

WJN: There was a time when I thought my job was to publish papers in peer reviewed journals. That somehow those findings would make their way into the hands and minds of those who needed the knowledge to help them solve problems. That way of thinking didn’t last very long. I realized that I knew just about everyone who was reading my papers on a first name basis. And worse, that they were only using my work to cite in their papers! I realized that sharing at every stage of our research was important. Even putting our research proposals online. In our turtle work we never attach a satellite transmitter to an animal without inviting the community to participate. We shared data in near real time via fax machines before there was internet. When we put tracking data online in real time we heard that it would be stolen and that it was career suicide. It wasn’t. In fact it enhanced our research.

EM: Do you have an example of this?

WJN: When we tracked Adelita, a loggerhead sea turtle, from Mexico to Japan in 1996-7 we put the data online and tracked her movements in real time. That connected us to researchers with creative ideas about data analysis, insights about plastic pollution in the North Pacific, teachers used the data to help students learn math and even to teach poetry. Far from career suicide, we built a vast social network.

EM: Relatedly, you work tirelessly for marine conservation and you started a campaign using a blue marble that’s been placed into the hands of people across the world. You also told me this idea had all the ingredients to be successful. What are the successful ingredients of a campaign?

WJN: The Blue Marbles Project is viral by design. It is simple, inexpensive, yet substantial. It isn’t about a digital signature or a click. Blue marbles are shared hand to hand and eye to eye. They are real, with weight and a smooth surface. We call it sociophysical media. People do share images and stories online and through social media, but always linked to a real world interaction. Sharing a blue marble is a simple act of gratitude, passed from person to person. It’s repetitive but novel, with an endlessly changing backdrop of places and circumstances. You could say it’s a global art project as much as anything, but it connects us and reminds us of that humbling Apollo 17 view of the planet.

EM: What’s the Blue Marble Project about?

WJN: I’d say it’s about gratitude, humility and love. “As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine.” – Astronaut James Irwin.

EM: Is it true that James Cameron took a blue marble on his record breaking Mariana Trench dive?

WJN: I gave Jim a blue marble when I was with him in Long Beach on a friend’s boat. He said “I’m taking this to the bottom of the ocean before I pass it on.” How cool is that!?

EM: Who else has been given a blue marble?

WJN: There are more than a million blue marbles in circulation and each has potentially been passed many times. Every time a marble is passed it generates a cool little story. Sometimes it creates a profound connection. Of course blue marbles have found their way into the hands of celebrities and rock stars, heads of state, religious leaders like the Dalai Lama. But my favorite stories are when kids share blue marbles with their teachers and parents, thanking them for their work. Such simple gestures of gratitude go a long way.

EM: Marine conservation is not always on the top of people’s minds. How important is it to tell “emotional” stories about this issue and others?

WJN: I prefer to tell water stories. Our waters are connected and even people far from the ocean can relate. The best stories are the ones inside each of us. At lectures and book readings I like to ask the room full of people “What’s your water?” and let the amazing stories flow.

EM: So it’s important to link humanity to a conservation agenda then?

WJN: Of course there’s an agenda, our local, state and national governments have one, the UN has one, businesses have agendas, the NGOs and universities have them. Sometimes they align, sometimes they compete or conflict. Lately I’ve been probing to find what individuals think and feel about their environment, especially water. In that emotional reconnection there’s often a clear call to action. It’s those actions that are most likely to take place. The accumulation of personal actions to protect and restore the waterways closest and most precious to each of us gets very interesting as it scales up.

EM: What’s next for Dr. Wallace J. Nichols?

WJN: I’m writing a few more books in this theme, giving talks and such. But over Thanksgiving break I’m leading a “Dads and Daughters” trip to Baja to spend time with sea turtles and whales. There’s nothing better for a Dad than falling more in love with his girl in the company of wild nature. I think that’s also very good for our kids and our little water planet too.

~

In reaching for our goals we aspire to pass knowledge on to others through the stories we tell and to nurture a community of collaborators who want to do the same. As a community we aspire to be the trusted experts – “mavens” – of change in our relationship with the living world. HIGHLIGHT draws attention to these community members that are exemplars of environmental communication. These interviews are published with the authors permission and in accordance to their own opinions. HIGHLIGHT is curated by Evermaven partner Neil Osborne.

See some of our recent work: