Does Travel Make You Smarter?

A delightful piece by Jonah Lehrer in the San Francisco Panorama on the cognitive benefits of travel. He argues that travel is not just about pleasure. It’s about stimulating your mind in a way that enhances creativity. It doesn’t matter where you go or what you do — it’s the physical act of movement and the newness of anything new that generates new thoughts.

In fact, 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….

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 something new in the old; the mundane is grasped from a slightly more abstract perspective….

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 acompliment, 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 initialguesses….

So let’s not pretend that travel is always fun, or that we endure the jet lag for pleasure. We don’t spend ten hours lost in the Louvre because we like it, and the view from the top of Machu Picchu probably doesn’t make up for the hassle of lost luggage. (More often than not, I need a vacation after my vacation.) We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.

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Here is the State Department’s commentary on the difficulty of learning various foreign languages for native English speakers. Ross Douthat on Avatar’s virtual appeal. (I loved the movie btw.) Cal Newport on what chess grandmasters can teach us about building a remarkable life. Best of Craigslist: sex duel with the neighbors.

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