Connecting Neuroscience and Nature: A Personal Journey to Environmental Advocacy

Guest blog by María Isabel Dabrowski.  

María Isabel Dabrowski is the Senior Outreach Associate at Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment, a U.S.-based organization that uses behavioural science to accelerate social change for people and nature. Read her story about how the simple message of Take 3 for the Sea led her to dedicate her career to combining behavioral science and environmental psychology with conservation work for the benefit of the planet. 

My story starts when I was in my 20s. I was lost – confused about life’s next steps and unsure about my career. My parents were shocked when I told them before receiving my degree in cognitive neuroscience that while the brain fascinated me, the environment was my calling. They asked me how exactly I planned to use this brain degree in the environmental world. I shrugged, wondering the same. Post-graduation, I tried to calm my racing thoughts in the best way I knew how – to walk along Lake Michigan and think.  

The size of a small ocean, Lake Michigan is one of the five Great Lakes in the northern Midwest of the United States. These lakes, glacier-formed, deliciously cool in the summer and impressively frozen in the winter, are freshwater cultural icons. Indigenous tribes have honored them for time immemorial. Mishigami, meaning large lake, is the Ojibwe name for Lake Michigan. The lakes today are used for fishing, for water sports, for admiring the sunrises and sunsets. These beaches are critical stopover points for migrating birds. And, as I spent my days walking alongside Lake Michigan looking for life’s answers in the waves, I found that the lake system was inundated in plastic.  

Every time I went to the lake I collected rainbow plastic remnants. The yellow prong of a beach digging toy. The red cap of a soda bottle. The teal green handle of a disposable teeth flosser. Pieces of every color, too small to guess their origins. My mom asked me why I had a pile of sandy plastic in a container in my room. She also asked, had I thought about maybe finding a job any time soon? I reassured her the collection had purpose, and that I had found my direction in life. I was going to get people to care about the plastic on the beach. 

Before long I came across a fantastic local environmental group and we collaborated on a beach clean-up program. The program was, and continues to be, a success, with hundreds of people attending biweekly clean-ups and learning about the 22 million pounds (10 million kg) of plastic pollution that end up in the Great Lakes annually. I cleaned and separated my growing collection of plastic pieces by color to show that the majority of trash on our local beaches were small particles, or microplastics. There was something painfully beautiful about seeing peoples’ interest in the multicolored pieces, only to realize what was inside. I showed my collection of nurdles, spherical pieces of unmolded virgin plastic that often end up on beaches from ship and train spills. People were interested.  

But with the interest came the excuses. ‘I don’t have time to help.’ ‘Maybe next time.’ There was a disconnect between peoples’ intentions and their actions. The information we provided wasn’t enough to spur action on its own. This was very frustrating, and I took my anger out by picking up more beach trash and cursing humanity. In the rhythmic sand sifting and plastic picking, however, something fell together. People are often the cause of these environmental problems. Could they be part of the solution too? Could understanding the brains, thoughts, emotions, and attitudes of the people who decided not to help be integral to getting them to take action? Could my degree in cognitive neuroscience help me answer this question?  

The answer was yes, times three. I researched how to end the disconnect between intention and action. I needed a way to encourage people to get involved that was simple, memorable, and actionable. Enter Take 3 for the Sea. Not only was this campaign an easy (and rhyming!) way for people to act, but the global social movement behind it, complete with a hashtag for these modern times, meant that people could feel less alone in the daunting task of cleaning up trash. Soon our social media posts and table signage during clean-ups gave people a quick way to participate: pick up three pieces of trash, post a photo, and tag #Take3ForTheSea. For some, this could lead to the foot-in-the-door phenomenon: the small action of picking up three pieces of trash could motivate further research into the plastic pollution problem, ways to push for systemic change or reduce plastic in their own lives.  

When people said they did not have time to participate in a clean-up, we invited them to at least #Take3ForTheSea. Many did. Discussions flowed. Children asked their parents if they could help with the clean-up next time. Out of town visitors even participated in the work. We heard stories of other polluted beaches, of the hopelessness and eco-anxiety people felt about cleaning a beach only to know the next tide would bring in more trash. We talked about the power of individual and collective action. The intention-action gap slowly closed.  

The next year, I attended the University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability to get a master’s degree. I handed off the beach clean-up program to others so I could fully invest in my specialization: combining behavioral science and environmental psychology with conservation work. I now work for the global organization Rare, which focuses on behavioral solutions to the world’s biggest environmental issues. I still find support in the waves of lakes and oceans and, to my parents’ relief, have been able to forge a career combining brain science and environmental conservation.  

I am now talking with Take 3 for the Sea about applying behavioral science to the organization. I am delighted and honored to be collaborating with the very organization that led me to understand how behavioral science can be applied to conservation campaigns. This has been a strange, beautiful, nonlinear journey for me, and I encourage everyone to #Take3ForTheSea.