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Homo Oceanus

May 28th, 2015

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If you are reading this magazine, there’s a good chance that you feel a special connection with water and the ocean. The sense of peace that we feel when we are in or near the ocean can be so deep that it feels fundamental to our being.

But is it fundamental to our brains? That’s the claim of Stanford neuroscientist and co-founder of the Institute for Applied Neuroscience, Kevin Weiner. He’s a proponent ofBlue Mind, the recently published book by marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, that maintains water holds a special place in our minds. Seductive as this idea might be, and as important as water is for life, there’s little definitive evidence for it.

An expert in how the brain processes vision, Weiner has been involved in several high-profile studies that uncovered interesting and previously overlooked sections of the brain that are involved in visual processing. He was also the captain of the Princeton swim team and is still an avid swimmer and surfer. He likes the notion that a brain can develop a special affinity for water and has come up with a few reasons why science might support that idea.

Weiner shared some of his thoughts with Hakai Magazine.

Erik Vance: You study visual perception in the brain. Why is that important for science?

Kevin Weiner: Vision and perception come pretty effortlessly for people. You can categorize an image in one-tenth of a second. Yet most people don’t know that there is a whole cascade of dozens of visual areas [in the brain] that are actually allowing them to perceive their world that quickly. And so understanding all those transformations from area to area that allow that speed is really important. Visual neuroscience is one of the oldest fields in neuroscience and yet we still don’t know how that happens.

EV: So is there something special about how humans perceive natural scenes?

KW: There are focal networks [in the visual cortex at the back of the brain] that light up when someone views faces and then there are other networks that light up when people are viewing natural scenes. How and why, people are still debating. In terms of bits of information or which one is more important to the brain, [scientists] don’t know that yet.