The Science-Backed Benefits of Travel

It has long been observed that traveling somewhere different is good for the soul. New experiences, relationships, and ideas help to enrich life and inspire creativity. Modern science is backing up what philosophers, writers, artists, and other creative types have long advocated. More from The Atlantic:

In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have begun examining more closely what many people have already learned anecdotally: that spending time abroad may have the potential to affect mental change. In general, creativity is related to neuroplasticity, or how the brain is wired. Neural pathways are influenced by environment and habit, meaning they’re also sensitive to change: New sounds, smells, language, tastes, sensations, and sights spark different synapses in the brain and may have the potential to revitalize the mind.

“Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms”, says Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School and the author of numerous studies on the connection between creativity and international travel. Cognitive flexibility is the mind’s ability to jump between different ideas, a key component of creativity. But it’s not just about being abroad, Galinsky says: “The key, critical process is multicultural engagement, immersion, and adaptation. Someone who lives abroad and doesn’t engage with the local culture will likely get less of a creative boost than someone who travels abroad and really engages in the local environment”.

In other words, going to Cancun for a week on spring break probably won’t make a person any more creative. But going to Cancun and living with local fishermen might.

Though my travels abroad have been distressingly limited — something I am planning to rectify very soon — I can attest to the benefits of embracing other cultures and their ideas and outputs. Tasting foreign cuisines, poring over images and videos of faraway places, indulging in the art, music, and literature of other societies — while these hardly substitutes for firsthand experience, the joy, knowledge, and stimulation I derive from just these limited samplings is already so significant; imagine what would be in store if I go a step further and embrace it all for myself?

Well, here are some possible benefits one can look forward to (emphasis mine):

In Galinsky’s latest study, published last month in the Academy of Management Journal, he and three other researchers examined the experiences of the creative directors of 270 high-end fashion houses. Combing through 11 years’ worth of fashion lines, Galinsky and his team searched for links between the creative directors’ experience working abroad and the fashion houses’ “creative innovations”, or the degree “to which final, implemented products or services are novel and useful from the standpoint of external audiences.” The level of creativity of a given product was rated by a pool of trade journalists and independent buyers. Sure enough, the researchers found a clear correlation between time spent abroad and creative output: The brands whose creative directors had lived and worked in other countries produced more consistently creative fashion lines than those whose directors had not.

So as most veteran travellers have long attested, the real joy of travel comes from immersing oneself in the actual, everyday areas and activities of the culture you are visiting, rather than sticking to the touristy areas (which are usually, though not always, tailored to accommodating comfort zones rather than offering something something different). Only then will you get the most out of the country you are visiting: its authentic sights, sounds, customs, cuisines, and lifestyle.

To be sure, these benefits are not something one can easily quantify: it is not as if visiting as many different countries as possible will enhance your creativity like gas filling a fuel tank. In fact, the study confirmed this as well:

Those who had lived and worked in more than three countries, the study found, still tended to show higher levels of creativity that those who hadn’t worked abroad at all, but less creativity that their peers who had worked in a smaller number of foreign countries. The authors hypothesized that those who had lived in too many countries hadn’t been able to properly immerse themselves culturally; they were bouncing around too much. “It gets back to this idea of a deeper level of learning that’s necessary for these effects to occur”, Galinsky says.

Conversely, going all-in and traveling somewhere radically different will not yield greater results — in fact, it might just have the opposite effect if you are not prepared.

Cultural distance, or how different a foreign culture is from one’s own, may also play a role: Surprisingly, Galinsky and his colleagues found that living someplace with a larger cultural distance was often associated with lower creativity than living in a more familiar culture. The reason for that, they hypothesized, was that an especially different culture might come with a bigger intimidation factor, which may discourage people from immersing themselves in it—and no immersion, they explained, could mean none of the cognitive changes associated with living in another country.

Of course, a lot of the fun in travel comes with the thrill of trying out something new, of going to unchartered or mysterious places and daring to explore and learn along the way. It is not something to be done lightly or without prior research and preparation, but everyone is different.

There is more to travelling than boosting brain power, too:

Traveling may have other brain benefits, too. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an associate professor of education and psychology at the University of Southern California, says that cross-cultural experiences have the potential to strengthen a person’s sense of self. “What a lot of psychological research has shown now is that the ability to engage with people from different backgrounds than yourself, and the ability to get out of your own social comfort zone, is helping you to build a strong and acculturated sense of your own self”, she says. “Our ability to differentiate our own beliefs and values … is tied up in the richness of the cultural experiences that we have had”.

Cross-cultural experiences have the potential to pull people out of their cultural bubbles, and in doing so, can increase their sense of connection with people from backgrounds different than their own. “We found that when people had experiences traveling to other countries it increased what’s called generalized trust, or their general faith in humanity”, Galinsky says. “When we engage in other cultures, we start to have experience with different people and recognize that most people treat you in similar ways. That produces an increase in trust”.

Though it can be a difficult and costly endeavor for many, an occasional foray abroad, or at the very least somewhere else in your country, may offer a lot of good to someone feeling stuck in life or in need of stimulation. There is something refreshing about being taken out of your element and having your daily routine shaken up a bit. Traveling somewhere new and getting into the nitty gritty of everyday life there can be intimidating and challenging, but in the process can be one of the most life-affirming and invigorating experiences.

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