Ocean Science Communications

Ocean Storytelling – How to Harness the Power of Story and Blue Mind

Originally posted on the CaNOE blog | Stories have the power to move, inspire and connect us. Stories about the ocean are particularly impactful because they ignite the positive benefits of storytelling and trigger a Blue Mind state – the feeling of calm, peace and well-being that comes from being near the water. Through ocean storytelling, you can improve your communications, increase connections and inspire others to action.
Written by
Natalie Gilson
Published on
April 15, 2024

This blog was written by Natalie Gilson for  CaNOE (Canadian Network of Ocean Educators)

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It was January of 2023, and I was a newcomer to the ocean scene.

I’d just come off nearly eight years of running a creative studio that was suffering from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I needed to do something quickly to turn my career around, or it would fall apart.

My solution was to connect my lifelong love of oceans with my creativity by entering the ocean industry and proclaiming myself an ocean-focused creative communicator.

As an oceans newbie, I started trying to build my virtual network and get to know the people already ingrained in the industry. I’m not sure what compelled me to do it this way, but when I began scheduling coffee chats, I would sit with people on a Google Meet, ask them what their ocean story was, and, in turn, share mine.

Over and over again, the same theme came up. Nearly everyone I talked to had an ocean story that started in their childhood and revolved around important people and pivotal moments. Whether it was memories of time spent on the beach with family, vacations to exotic destinations, or even the memory of an impactful movie like Free Willy, the childhood connection was always there.

What fascinated me the most about these conversations, though, was that whenever someone told me their ocean story, or I shared mine, we would visibly become more attentive to each other. I noticed us both lean in towards the camera, felt our gazes settle on each other, and noticed the start of a smile.

Then came the vigorous nodding as we recognized bits and pieces of each other’s ocean stories. Their telling of that one special day they were collecting shells on the beach with their mom instantly made me happy because it reminded me of a similar memory from my past and vice versa. We became increasingly connected as each piece of the other’s ocean story was revealed.

What was the end result of all this story-sharing?

First, sharing ocean stories allowed me to relive my experiences and revisit my memories, which made me happy. It also put me at ease with the other person because I recognized many shared ocean experiences in their stories. Beyond that, sharing ocean stories made us sit up and pay attention to each other because we were discussing something we both cared about.

Sharing ocean stories created a feeling of connection. Even though we had no idea the other existed fifteen minutes before, we had put ourselves at ease and established a bond.

This is the power of ocean storytelling.

But what exactly makes ocean stories so powerful? Ocean stories harness both the benefits of storytelling AND the benefits of the Blue Mind in one impactful punch, making them a valuable and meaningful method of communication.

The Power of Storytelling

We all know how impactful a good story can be. From our favourite movies to that novel you just can’t put down, stories have the power to captivate us. To connect us to others. To make us feel something.

And it’s been that way for humans for a long time. In fact, storytelling is one of the oldest forms of human communication, used to share educational, cultural, and entertainment content for thousands of years.

Beyond the sociocultural aspect of storytelling, our brains crave stories. We naturally seek to understand reality through stories and use narrative to help us make sense of our lived experiences.

But what is it about stories that can move us to tears or keep us on the edge of our seats with our eyes glued to the screen? Is it simply the magic of good storytellers? No, it’s not magic but a mind-blowing neurological response to storytelling.

As described by Dr. Paul J. Zak in his article, Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React, good stories cause our brains to release oxytocin. This hormone makes us feel trust or connection and is linked directly to social bonding behaviour. When oxytocin floods our brains, we feel connected to the storyteller and the characters in the story and inspired to take action on their behalf. This oxytocin reaction is not reliant on being close to the storyteller either. You can watch or listen to a story from anywhere in the world and experience an oxytocin reaction (which explains why sharing ocean stories with my colleagues profoundly affected the quality of our meetings.)

Likewise, Dr. Zak identifies the impact of the hormone ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone for those of you who are curious), which is associated with attention and focus. As we listen to the different parts of a story, the amount of ACTH in our brain changes, responding to the ups and downs of the narrative.

Maintaining attention is challenging because our brains are geared toward energy consumption. However, a powerful story or moment in a narrative will force your brain out of the idle mode it likes to hang out in and make it pay attention. If you’ve been sitting in a day full of meetings, for example, but suddenly your next meeting starts with, ‘let me tell you an ocean story‘, your brain does a bit of a double take. It’s pulled out of its energy-conserving state and suddenly sits upright and alert. This alert state is potent when sharing knowledge because we’re bombarded with so much information in our daily lives that we tend to tune out. A good story, however, can tune us back in, making it an incredible tool for transferring valuable information.

Thanks to oxytocin and ACTH, a good story can emotionally engage you, inspire you to action, connect you to others and help your brain learn.  

Ignite a Blue Mind State Through Ocean Stories

As anyone with a childhood memory of the ocean can tell you (a.k.a. all of you), water has a magical quality. It has the ability to soothe, inspire, excite, and delight. The ocean can be a great healer and a great listener, and there’s a reason that so many of our foundational memories as children can be associated with it.

The best description of the incredible power of water (be it ocean or other) is the research done by Wallace J. Nichols, which served as the foundation for his book The Blue Mind. In The Blue Mind, Dr. Nichols highlights how proximity to water can soothe the soul, enhance well-being, and even boost cognitive functions.

Dr. Nichols distinguishes a ‘Blue Mind’ state as one where we feel relaxed and at ease versus a red mind state dominated by stress or tension. He suggests that water can trigger a Blue Mind state, and scientific evidence supports this theory by showing that water increases the feel-good hormones dopamine and oxytocin, lowers stress, and improves one’s ability to focus.

The incredible Blue Mind benefits of water aren’t just ignited when you’re close to it, either—they extend to the stories we share about water. Narratives that evoke memories or experiences we’ve had with water (such as imagining the sun sparkling off the water while waves crash gently on the shore) can stimulate a Blue Mind state, offering both the storyteller and the listener a momentary escape to a place of calm and connection. Much like stories can illicit a physiological response regardless of the distance between the storyteller and the audience, the ocean also has the power to impact us through story, even when we’re not directly near it.

The Impact of Sharing Ocean Stories

Having explored both the benefits of storytelling and of telling stories about water, the power of ocean storytelling should be starting to come into view. But how do you harness these benefits and make them work for you and your communications?

Whenever you can, start your communications with an ocean story.

Even if you’re trying to encourage donations, teach kids, or give a lecture, start with an ocean story. This allows you and your audience to step into a Blue Mind state for a few minutes and relax. Whether in-person or communicating through digital channels, setting the stage with an ocean story pulls your audience out of their daily grind and says, ‘Hey, let’s chill out together for a few moments and share a meaningful moment.’ It also opens the door to connection – conveying the message that you have something in common – making your audience sit up and pay attention.

To take it one step further, sharing an ocean story can elicit an emotional reaction in your audience, making them more receptive to what you say and inspiring them to take action afterward.

By intertwining the art of storytelling with the innate human attraction to water, we unlock a potent tool for communication. Ocean stories invite us into shared connection, foster deep emotion, and remind us of our collective responsibility to the ocean. When harnessed well, the benefits of ocean storytelling can go far in boosting your communications, inspiring action, and ultimately creating a better future for the thing we all care about the most – the ocean.  

What do you think? How can ocean stories be used to create more impactful and engaging messages for your audience?

Summary of the Benefits of Ocean Storytelling

  • Emotional engagement
  • Inspiration to take action
  • Connection to others
  • Increased ability to absorb information
  • Escape and entertainment
  • Lowered stress levels
  • Boosted mood
  • Improved focus

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This blog was written by Natalie Gilson for  CaNOE (Canadian Network of Ocean Educators)

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Natalie Gilson
April 15, 2024

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Originally posted on the CaNOE blog | Stories have the power to move, inspire and connect us. Stories about the ocean are particularly impactful because they ignite the positive benefits of storytelling and trigger a Blue Mind state – the feeling of calm, peace and well-being that comes from being near the water. Through ocean storytelling, you can improve your communications, increase connections and inspire others to action.
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