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Travel on the Brain: Globe-Trotting Makes You Smarter

by Christine DeSadeleer Jan 11, 2010
Turns out travel may be one of the keys to unlocking our brain’s creativity.

Alright, now we’ve got some science to back up the point of travel.

Seems travel not only feels like an adventure, it actually acts as an adventure for our brain. Turns out seeing new places and experiencing new things actually makes us smarter.

Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, wrote a piece for The San Francisco Panorama about what I’ve decided to dub “travel brain”. In it, he details why we continue to take those trips, even with all of the annoyances, tediousness, and aggravations that come with just about every expedition we take. He explains travel’s usefulness to our brains:

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.

From there, by way of different studies Lehrer gathered, he postulates that getting away from the problem gives us a chance to envision larger outcomes and possibilities. Distance is key.

If One Could Only Imagine

Most of us can probably agree that the imagination which comes with travel – of new worlds, of other cultures, maybe even the reason you read Matador – is what makes us sign up for that next trip before we’ve even fully recovered from the last. Now we know the imagination actually experienced on trips can help us out in “regular life,” too.

The reason I love this “new” finding is because I’ve so often felt (or been told) that I’m running away from my problems when I decide to travel after hitting some sort of mental or physical wall. But landing in a new place has always given me clarity on some issue I couldn’t seem to find my way out of when caught up in daily life.

So in essence, it seems that traveling to new lands and reveling in different cultures may actually help you crack that problem riddle back home:

When we escape from the place we spend most of our time, … we start thinking about obscure possibilities … that never would have occurred to us if we’d stayed back on the farm…Experiencing another culture endows us with a valuable open-mindedness.

And the creativity of dealing with the unknown – which train do I take? How much money does this convert to? – is like taking our brain to the gym (and who knows, may help in warding off diseases such as dementia). That’s certainly worth adding to the perks of travel.

Do you think travel increases your problem-solving skills? Share your thoughts below.

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