Sometimes I have the good fortune of stumbling on a new, interesting blog. Recently I found “The Frontal Cortex,” a blog by Jonah Lehrer (who writes for Wired, New York Times, etc.) Lehrer’s a gifted writer and a trained neuroscientist. His post that really hooked me to “The Frontal Cortex” discusses recent research into the long-term psychological benefits of travel.
Many of the conclusions jive with my views on travel’s positive effects, but it’s very interesting to read about these effects actually measured in the brain and done in a science lab. Here are the main points:
Why Do We Travel?
Several new science papers suggest that getting away—and it doesn’t even matter where you’re going–is an essential habit of effective thinking . . . It’s not about vacation, or relaxation, or sipping daiquiris on an unspoiled tropical beach: it’s about the tedious act itself, putting some miles between home and wherever you happen to spend the night (that opens up nuero pathways.)
The reason such travels are mentally useful involves a quirk of cognition, in which problems that feel “close”–and the closeness can be physical, temporal, or even emotional–get contemplated in a more concrete manner. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful–it allows us to focus on the facts at hand–it also inhibits our imagination. Consider a field of corn. When you’re standing in the middle of the field . . . your mind is automatically drawn to thoughts that revolve around the primary meaning of corn, which is that it’s a plant, a cereal, a staple of Midwestern farming.
But now imagine that same field of corn from a different perspective. Instead of standing on a farm, you’re now in the midst of a crowded city street, dense with taxis and pedestrians. . . The plant will no longer just be a plant: instead, your vast neural network will pump out all sorts of associations. You’ll think about high-fructose corn syrup, obesity [and so on]. . . The noun is now a web of tangents, a loom of remote connections.
What does this have to do with travel?
When we escape from the place we spend most of our time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas we’d previously suppressed. We start thinking about obscure possibilities–corn can fuel cars!–that never would have occurred to us if we’d stayed back on the farm. Furthermore, this more relaxed sort of cognition comes with practical advantages, especially when we’re trying to solve difficult problems. Look, for instance, at a recent experiment led by the psychologist Lile Jia at Indiana University. He randomly divided a few dozen undergrads into two groups, both of which were asked to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. . . One group of students was told that the task was developed by Indiana University students studying abroad in Greece, while the other group was told that the task was developed by Indiana students studying in Indiana. At first glance, it’s hard to believe that such a slight and seemingly irrelevant difference would alter the performance of the subjects. Why would it matter where the task was conceived?
Nevertheless, Jia found a striking difference between the two groups: when students were told that the task was imported from Greece, they came up with significantly more transportation possibilities. They didn’t just list buses, trains, and planes; they cited horses, triremes, spaceships, bicycles, and even Segway scooters. Because the source of the problem was far away, the subjects felt less constrained by their local transport options; they didn’t just think about getting around in Indiana, they thought about getting around all over the world, and even in deep space.
In a second study, Jia found that people were much better at solving a series of insight puzzles when told that the puzzles came all the way from California, and not from down the hall. These subjects considered a far wider range of alternatives, which made them more likely to solve the challenging brain teasers. There is something intellectually liberating about distance. . . .
The larger lesson, though, is that our thoughts are shackled by the familiar. The brain is a neural tangle of near infinite possibility, which means that it spends a lot of time and energy choosing what not to notice. As a result, creativity is traded away for efficiency; we think in literal prose, not symbolist poetry. A bit of distance, however, helps loosen the chains of cognition, making it easier to see some-thing new in the old; the mundane is grasped from a slightly more abstract perspective. As T. S. Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” . . . .
According to the researchers, the experience of another culture endows us with a valuable open-mindedness, making it easier to realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings. Consider the act of leaving food on the plate: in China, this is often seen as accomplishment, a signal that the host has provided enough to eat. But in America the same act is a subtle insult, an indication that the food wasn’t good enough to finish.
Such cultural contrasts mean that seasoned travelers are alive to ambiguity, more willing to realize that there are different (and equally valid) ways of interpreting the world. This, in turn, allows them to expand the circumference of their “cognitive inputs,” as they refuse to settle for their first answers and initial guesses. . . .
Of course, this mental flexibility doesn’t come from mere distance. It’s not enough to just change time zones, or to schlep across the world only to eat Le Big Mac instead of a Quarter-Pounder with cheese. Instead, this increased creativity appears to be a side-effect of difference: we need to change cultures, to experience the disorienting diversity of human traditions. The same details that make foreign travel so confusing–Do I tip the waiter? Where is this train taking me?–turn out to have a lasting impact, making us more creative because we’re less insular. We’re reminded of all that we don’t know, which is nearly everything; we’re surprised by the constant stream of surprises. . . . When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.”