A legendary big wave surfer was so drawn to the ocean, even as a toddler, that his worried parents sent him to college in Idaho.

"They were trying to break me from the ocean," said Jeff Clark, who grew up in Half Moon Bay and now owns Mavericks Surf Shop.

"It was brutal," said Clark, who came home to the sea in six months.

Entering the ocean, he said, "is like recharging. It's what drives my life."

The lure of breaking waves, shimmering blue waters and an endless horizon universally attracts people seeking the calm and renewal.

That inexplicable connection of brain and ocean was the focus of a first-of-its-kind scientific conference this week in San Francisco, at which Clark and 30 others spoke.

The connection between the ocean and the brain "is poorly studied and (a) tricky territory of discussion among scientists," said Wallace J. Nichols, a noted sea turtle biologist and research associate at the California Academy of Sciences who organized the "Bluemind Summit."

Among the connections attendees considered were the similarity in chemical composition of the brain and seawater, seawater and body water, and the physical similarity of the flat expansive sea and the flat grasslands.

Considering the worldwide appeal of the ocean throughout the ages, it confounds Nichols that it's taken so long to embark on serious scientific look at its neurological effects.


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"The neuroscientists haven't thought about the ocean, remarkably," Nichols said during an interview at the Cliff House overlooking the Pacific in San Francisco. "Considering the ocean is three-quarters of the planet, it's kind of a big miss."

The sea and the brain have common chemical compositions, the conferees gathered at the academy learned. And all life arose from the ocean, said Philippe Goldin, a neuroscientist and clinical psychologist from Stanford University who spoke at the event.

"There's no lack of clarity that we came from the ocean," he said. "Seventy percent of my body is saltwater. My brain is bathed in saltwater." Even neurons fire because of salt level changes in the brain.

This evolutionary connection to the ocean explains some of its draw, said Michael Merzenich, an emeritus professor of neuroscience from UC San Francisco.

But he and other scientists described how the ocean instills a sense of safety with its flat horizon that allows humans to spot any oncoming threats like lions or warriors, and unlimited supply of water that's so essential to life.

"To the evolving mind, it's the cleanest savanna ever experienced," said Nichols.

Cultures worldwide pick photos of the savanna as the most appealing, even if they've never seen one, pointed out one scientist at the event. And Nichols said even though we rationally know salt water isn't drinkable, the abundance is nonetheless comforting.

And the smooth surface of the ocean rarely surprises, which is also soothing, Merzenich said. "When it's landmark-free, it's naturally calming to us, much like closing your eyes is calming."

The enthusiastic group spent the day brainstorming how emerging knowledge in neuroscience could give credence to the role of the ocean in promoting health through stress relief, and to develop ocean conservation messages that resonate with audiences better than disaster- and fact-based pitches.

"This sort of conference is the first step to integrating what we know we feel and what we can prove," said Shelley Batts, a Stanford University neuroscientist specializing in the effects of sound.

What's known in her field is that humans react to sound, with pleasant or unpleasant sounds altering heart and breathing rates, and the release of hormones such as the stress activator cortisol.

The ocean's sound is especially appealing. "The sound of the sea is one of the most evocative to people," Batts said because of its regular wave patterns, while noxious noise is random.

The "whoosh" sound at the ocean "brings up feelings of relaxation and tranquillity."

Goldin, the Stanford neuroscientist with expertise in the effect of meditation on the body, said the ocean induced a mild meditative state. And rather than simply relaxing people, the meditative state heightens awareness of the surroundings and one's own emotions.

Harnessing the power of neuroscience can also hone advocacy for the ocean, Nichols said.

"People get really tired and bummed out from relentless bad news. This effort has to do with reminding people how good the ocean can make them feel."

Long Beach Vice-Mayor Suja Lowenthal showed slides of a river estuary in her city clogged with garbage after a storm, fed from litter in Long Beach and 51 other cities upstream. Lowenthal stressed that many children in her city had never even been to the beach, and without that experience there's less motivation to protect it.

Fifth-graders in Long Beach are required to attend the symphony, Lowenthal added. She plans a similar push for all Long Beach children to visit the beach.

Sotheby's real estate agent Eric Johnson said he has long pondered why his wealthy clients are willing to pay up to 40 percent more for a high-rise unit in San Francisco facing the water rather than facing land.

Johnson said he believes water views inspire a sense of infinite possibilities, as opposed to the finite sense of looking at land.

"If I'm standing on the 50th floor of penthouse in Maui or Florida or California, I've achieved, I've accomplished and the world is filled with endless opportunities as far as the eye can see," he said.

Suzanne Bohan covers science. Contact her at 510-262-2789. Follow her at Twitter.com/suzbohan.