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Neuroconservationism: A Neural Pathway to Preservation

Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist and environmentalist, has proposed an idea that may galvanize conservation movements based on neuroscientific evidence that suggests our brains deeply crave the ocean. In fact, he launched what he calls a mind-ocean initiative named BLUEMiND, with the hopes of merging the fields of cognitive science and oceanography. The group will be holding its third conference this May to facilitate discussions regarding the burgeoning field of neuroconservationism, with a major focus on exploring the biological basis of our emotional connection with the ocean and the environment.

Your brain on ocean

A Responsibility Problem

According to many scientists, the verdict is in: climate change is real and human-caused. [1] Fortunately, debates regarding the science of global warming have somewhat subsided and discussions regarding solutions have emerged. Needless to say, the world will continue to heat up and the oceans will continue to rise absent large-scale changes. [1] It has become increasingly obvious that global warming not only poses an imminent threat to the stability of our climate, but that it also represents a moral problem for our society. Policymakers and environmentalists have failed to effectively communicate the urgency of global warming in a manner that elicits action.

Unfortunately, there are barriers that discourage individuals from taking responsibility for human-induced climate change. Regardless, a strategy is desperately needed to motivate citizens to conserve. The nature of climate change makes it difficult for policymakers to encourage people to alter their lifestyles, because these changes may come with a hefty high price tag. Often, the short-term costs of acting in a more environmentally friendly way (i.e. buying environmentally friendly light bulbs, installing a solar panel on your roof, etc.) require taking on a rather large financial burden. [2] Therefore, policymakers may need to tap into the part of the brain that compels individuals to make different choices despite costs. Nichols seems to think he has found a way to use the brain’s fascination with water and the ocean to inspire action.  More specifically, he proposes that the brain’s innate connection with the ocean could be used in tandem with neuromarketing research to potentially halt the coming ecological crisis.

Addicted to the Ocean?

Nichols has championed conservationism by proposing the idea that our brains find the ocean soothing in a uniquely spiritual way. This claim has incredible implications for how policymakers and environmentalist choose to motivate people for the purpose of conserving the Earth’s precious resources. Specifically, Nichols hopes to combine the tenets of neuromarketing and neuroscience to develop a new neuro-related field: neuroconservatism. The union of all these ideas forms quite an interesting theory. In Nichols own words, “We can use science to explore and understand the profound and ancient emotional and sensual connections that lead to deeper relationships with the ocean.”

Many believe Nichols may be on the verge of discovering something significant. For instance, he suggests there are persuasive ways that our society can incorporate the ocean’s uniquely beautiful characteristics into our narrative regarding environmental conservationism. He notes that there is something distinctive about the ocean: it has the capacity to soothe our anxieties and to calm our minds. Why not utilize these images and sounds to appeal to that isolated part of the brain for the purpose of spurring environmentalism? Many are hopeful that we can capitalize on these findings to do just that; specifically, others have mentioned that Nichols’ idea has great potential to motivate people to care about other environmental issues in a way that does not rely on complicated statistical models or confusing climate data. [3]

Specifically, Nichols proposes that brain scans of people ‘hooked on ocean’ could provide invaluable insight into the brain’s connection to the environment. He indicates that advertisers could use this information to influence consumers to conserve. Preliminary research has been done on neuromarketing strategies and consumer purchasing trends, but uncertainty remains. Many researchers question this techniques’ ability to read buyers’ minds for the sake of changing behavior. For instance, several neuromarketing firms like Neurosense and EmSense have popped up in the past decade with the hopes of integrating advertising principles and brain imaging results. However, despite the growth of the field, there does not seem to be strong evidence for a “buy button” in the brain. Furthermore, there is little evidence to support the claim that catering to the brain’s pleasure centers results in behavioral changes. At most, advertisers can appeal to consumers in a way that makes certain brands look more alluring, but this does not actually mean that consumers will go out and buy a product. These conclusions do not bode well for the future of neuroconservationism. How could information about the brain’s perception of the ocean encourage consumers to install a solar panel on their roof when doing so is associated with a huge financial cost? The answer is not clear. Additionally, Nichols’ blog does not indicate precisely what he thinks should be done if research were to emerge that indicated images of the ocean could stimulate action. Rather, he presents an intriguing yet slightly vague premise that could be promising but has not been substantially researched up to this point.

Say neuroscience research and neuromarketing techniques could be used to subconsciously motivate individuals to conserve. Could advertising firms spur an environmental movement? Maybe conservation groups such as Greenpeace or the Sierra Club could conduct studies to determine what images of the oceans could do to incite preservation. The results of these studies could influence how environmentalists frame advertising campaigns, commercials, or fundraising initiatives that promote conservation.  Nonetheless, doing so raises a whole other set of ethical questions. If the technology were to able to point researchers to a place in the brain that triggered a humans to buy, should marketers be allowed to take advantage of such expertise? Some believe using neuromarketing would be an unethical way to coerce humans. In fact, bioethicists suggest that using brain imaging to promote certain products is an example of market distortion that should be avoided, because it does not protect the consumer.  Others tend to believe that the onus is on the buyer to reject appeals to purchase certain products. 

A Picture by Jim Patterson: Water on My Mind

Ultimately, it is unknown to what extent our brain’s potential craving for the ocean can alter our society’s exploitative habits. Nichols insinuates that the manipulation of the mind may be necessary given the current ecological circumstances. Specifically, he asserts that we desperately need to connect what we know about the neurological basis for emotional to craft a strategy that lures the subconscious mind into thinking it has an obligation to preserve natural resources. For example, Coca-Cola has recently decided that they will use neuromarketing techniques to evaluate emotional reactions to their famous soda brand in the next year. Nichols could follow suit and begin using similar technology to measure emotional reactions to advertisements that incorporate aesthetically pleasing images of the ocean.

Does this strategy have the capacity to transform the way environmentalists and policymakers approach the biodiversity crisis? Should we appeal to our emotional connection with water and the ocean? More importantly, should we continue to fund projects that allow neuroscientists to do more research in this direction? Perhaps, a brief look into moral psychological research sheds an alternative perspective.

Can Emotion Motivate Action?

Thankfully, neuroscientists offer insight into some of the decision-making areas of the brain that suggest there are ways in which we can change our framing of climate change to hasten action. In particular, a study done by Joshua D. Greene and colleagues delineates between decisions made from a deontological standpoint versus a consequentialist context. Using fMRI technology, he performed an experiment that measured reaction times in certain moral situations. The dilemmas presented to the participants were variations of the classic footbridge and switch problems. [4] In both scenarios, one person dies in order to save five riding on a trolley. However, in the footbridge setup, the participants are asked whether or not it is morally acceptable to save the people on the trolley by pushing someone onto the tracks. In the switch problem, the participants are asked to judge whether or not it is okay to save the people on the trolley by pushing a switch that will result in the indirect death of someone down the tracks. The study yielded fascinating results: people that were evaluating switch-like problems had greater brain activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the inferior parietal lobe. On the contrary, people that judged the footbridge-like scenarios had greater brain activation in emotional areas of the brain such as the amygdala. Additionally, those who thought the footbridge scenario represented a morally sound decision had to overcome emotional impulses. Furthermore, Greene performed a later study that concluded that slower reaction times demonstrated the greater cognitive processing necessary for making a utilitarian decision in contrast to the quick, emotional processing of a deontological decision. [5]

The Trolley Dilemma

How do these findings relate to say about Nichols’ work, which emphasizes emotion? Greene’s findings suggest that framing remains an incredibly important component of raising climate change to the level of a moral problem in the minds of individuals. Given the complexity of climate change, policymakers should stray away from utilizing emotional appeals to raise consciousness about an issue that is not emotionally prominent. Similarly, Marco Grasso suggests that injecting our pleas to reduce emissions with emotionally charged representations do little to activate our fear-oriented parts of the brain. [6] Rather, we should employ a utilitarian decision-making calculus to persuade others to engage in action to prevent climate change.

I believe findings lead us to a more provocative question: how could neuroscientists use our knowledge of the brain circuits involved in moral decision-making to encourage people to act in a more ethical manner? Emerging research seems to suggest that there is a possibility that we could morally enhance people to alter the way in which a person thinks or judges a particular situation. John R. Shook discusses the possibility of marketing a drug that could transform the way humans make moral decisions. He delves in the different scenarios in which a certain drug could be appropriate; for example, a drug could be used for “elevating devotion to a social cause” or “intensifying prejudices against despised ethnic minorities.” [7] Nonetheless, it does not appear out of the realm of possibility that climate change and environmental problems could fit into the former category. Theoretically, if a drug were to be developed that could effectively alter the moral parts of the brain in a way that would change the way in which humans think about the environment, the drug could also help save the planet. Clearly, the prospect of moral enhancement raises other pressing questions. For example, who would get the drug, and how will the drug be designed? Nonetheless, the potential ramifications of its development could be tremendous.

What Now?

The possibility of moral enhancement and ocean-based neuromarketing seems to offer innovative mechanisms to spur environmental conservation. However, neither strategy will be able to solely combat the large environmental problems that will ensue during the 21st century. Nonetheless, we should not be resigned to passivity in the face of major challenges. Rather, neuroscience should continue to look into how we can apply images of the ocean to combat environmental problems into a marketing context to spur conservationism with the hopes of potentially altering consumer behavior. Even if researchers cannot develop a perfect tool to elicit conservationism, environmentalists, policymakers, and academics should still encourage discussions around these pressing problems. Hopefully, the third BLUEMIND conference will inspire further conversations regarding the burgeoning field of neuroconservationism.

If you want to learn more, visit this website on May 30th, 2013 to watch a live stream of the conference.

BLUEMiND Conference


[1] Prothero, Donald R., “How We Know Global Warming is Real and Human Caused.” The Skeptic Magazine 17 (2012): 14-24.

[2] Shome, Debika and Marx, Sabine. “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication.” Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (2009). New York.

[3] Andrews, Candice. “Is Neuro-conservation the New Hope for Environmental Messages?” Gaiam Life (2012). Retrieved from

[4] Greene, Joshua D., et al. “An fMRI Investigation of Emotional Engagement in Moral Judgment.” Science 14 (2001): 2105-2108.

[5] Greene, Joshua D., et al. “Cognition Load Selectively Interferes with Utilitarian Moral Judgment.” Cognition 107.3 (2008): 1144-1154.

[6] Grasso, Marco. “Climate Ethics: With a Little Help from Moral Cognitive Neuroscience.” Environmental Politics (2012): 1-17.

[7] Shook, John R., “Neuroethics and the Possible Types of Moral Enhancement.” AJOB Neuroscience 3 (2012): 3-14.

Want to cite this post?

Marshall, J. (2013). Neuroconservationism: A Neural Pathway to Preservation. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


  1. Julia,

    Thanks for this detailed analysis. It's informative and has given me much food for much thought. I'll weigh in here with a short comment and follow up with more discussion later.

    I attended "J" Nichols talk at the Georgia Aquarium a few weeks ago. I saw a committed environmentalist who was struggling to find more effective ways to mobilize a public about impending threats to the oceans. I also saw a person whose understanding of what neuroscience had to offer in this regard struck me as more superficial than substantive.

    This situation brings into focus a troubling aspect of neuromarketing, one which has less to do with the application of specific neuroscience findings and more to do with selling stuff by simply by dressing it up with beguiling neuroscience references. Neuroscience in these situations becomes little more than a marketing gimmick, a special sauce.

    My opinion is captured pretty well in this drawing that I made after I got home from Nichols' presentation. Here's a link to it.



  2. Marc,

    I'd love to chat more about your ideas. Love the drawing too!



  3. Thanks, J.,

    I'd be very happy to chat with you about my concerns. I plan to present them in a follow-up blog post here.

    I do want to say here that I have no doubt about the quality of the work that you are doing with regard to protecting our oceans. It is much appreciated and much admired.

    I am concerned about whether neuroscience has much to add as far as the meaning and value of what you are trying to accomplish, though.

    The oceans are critically important to us as a species and as a culture. Whether these sentiments emerge in part from some hidden neurological state that we all share (or not) is of little consequence, at least in my opinion.

    I do appreciate your frustration in getting the message out about why people should care about the oceans, but ultimately I believe that the answer lies in education and not in neuromarketing.



  4. This comment has been removed by the author.


  5. Marc and Julia,

    I enjoyed the drawing as well…

    Interesting read. Perhaps I am inclined towards it because I have a deep love of the ocean myself. Being born and spending my childhood in Hawaii wore off on me.

    I see your point, Marc, that it is not clear whether we all share "some hidden neurological state" which is fond of the ocean. In vernacular I've dubbed certain people as "water people" and others as not. They do not hold the ocean in such high regards as others. In fact, some people do not like the ocean at all. They are afraid of it – the vastness, the life contained within. It is a force to be reckoned with.

    So maybe this non-universality of emotion throws a wrench in the neuroconservationism. Maybe they've thought of a way around this problem.

    Also, I'm no neuro expert, but there is work in philosophy concerning the motivational force of emotions. For example that of Nussbaum, who takes an approach from desire – arguing that emotions can motivate actions because they cause a certain kind of desire. Another perspective from Neurophilosopher, Damasio, defines emotions as basic regulatory processes that are responsible for simple reflexes (pain/pleasure) and basic drives (hunger/thirst). We have Andrea Scarantino here in Atlanta, at Georgia State University who has developed his own motivational theory of emotions.
    Quite interesting to read these different motivational accounts and what implications may arise in attempts such as neuroconservationism.



  6. Cait,

    Thanks for your comment. I think there may have been some confusion about the point I was trying to make in mine. I'll try to clarify it here.

    I wasn't faulting neuroconservationism because of the possible non-universality of our emotional experience of the ocean. And I don't think that this is what throws the wrench in the works of neuroconservationism.

    I think what throws a wrench in the works of neuroconservationism is a reliance on the existence of neurological states to inform us of our values. This to me an variation on what is called the naturalist fallacy.

    That said, I find that I agree with much of what you have to say. I think that our emotions – universal or not – are often reflective of our values. They can motivate us to go out and do good in the world.

    To try to bring my point into focus, I'll pose this question for you to consider:

    You have said that you have a deep love of the ocean because of childhood experiences. I presume this feeling, in part, is what moves you to care about its fate.

    What if neuroscience experiments failed to demonstrate that the love you feel could be reliably linked to a neurological state that you had in common with other people, even people who shared your attachment to the ocean. Would that diminish your motivation to see the oceans protected?

    Let's hear it for well-considered actions that tap into both our shared desires and shared values. We don't need brain scans to make their case.



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