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Foreign Factor: Why Travel is Good for You

February 26, 2010
The latest McSweeney’s has a fascinating article on the cognitive benefits of travel by Jonah Lehrer . The article mixes witty prose with thought-provoking comments on the trials and triumphs of travel. “Why do we travel?“, Lehrer asks.
If you, like me, have spent more than your share of time killing time in crappy terminals, waiting for delayed planes and chasing delayed baggage, you have also probably, in a moment of exasperation, found yourself pondering this very question.
Lehrer describes air travel as a ‘tedious lesson in the ills of modernity‘- from bad lighting, to bad food and bad design: “It’s globalization in a nutshell, and it sucks.”

And yet, somehow, no matter how harrowing the experience, no sooner have I emptied and stored my suitcase than I am signing myself up to do it all over again.
I’m not the only one.
While some travel is non-negotiable, most is: Lehrer cites that in 2008 only 30% of trips over 50 miles were done for business. Traveling, it seems, is a basic human desire. But in an age when everything is going virtual, is it really still necessary for us to physically go? Are our migratory instincts still serving us or should they be the ones to go? Should the airplane cede to the armchair?
According to Lehrer (and, more importantly, several scientific studies), getting away is an essential habit of effective thinking. Unfamiliar environments stimulate our imagination: to be outside of the box, it seems, helps us to think outside of the box.
When we are in familiar environments, we train ourselves to see the same things in the same way. Lehrer explains:
The brain is a neural tangle of near infinite possibility, which means that it spends alot 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 something new in the old; the mundane is grasped from a slightly more abstract perspective.
Traveling, quite literally, opens up a whole new world of possibilities. But you have to be willing to see them.  Lehrer is quick to clarify that this mental flexibility does not come from distance alone:
It’s not enough to just change time zones, or to schlep across the world only to eat LeBig 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.
distance + difference = the secret tonic of creativity
Or as author Oliver Wendell Holmes once said:
Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.
I’ll schlep for that.

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