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.


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.

8 comments on “Does Travel Make You Smarter?
  • ….But when we get home, something in the mind has changed…

    That something, I guess is altered reality. No doubt, the great affair is to move.

    But for the insularity offered by travel, the world would be full of couch potatoes chomping wafers, watching TV or worshipping celebrities. So much is the motivation – to flee reality – that defines escapism than the behavior itself. Travel allows us to slip into altered reality letting us start living for real once more, enjoying connections with others. It’s the need for altered reality, not necessarily more pleasant than where you come from, that urges you to backpack, as opposed to the escapist that seeks to run away from routine.

  • I must say it’s a bit sobering to realize that by the 10,000 hour rule, the only subject I’ve mastered, apart from my vocation, is onanism.

    Well, I suppose there are worse things to excel in.

    After more than forty years of intensive deliberate practice, I think I qualify as a grandmaster of the art.

    I enjoyed Jonah Lehrer’s essay, too, though I felt he gave other modes of transportation than flying short shrift by writing as if there is no other way to get where you’re going.

    Sometimes the journey to another place is the whole adventure.

    I sailed to Bermuda with a buddy who built his own sailboat, a 38-foot steel-hulled sloop.

    Three of us, obnoxious rebels all, sailed downwind wing-and-wing, over 900 miles to St. George’s.

    Two days of our passage we sailed in twenty plus-foot seas.

    My first watch at the helm after the swell picked up I turned around to look at the wave behind us– and had to crane my neck upward to see its unbreaking crest.

    It struck me that steering the vessel was like surfing on a forty-foot surfboard.

    My sensitivity to the boat’s movements was profound– a moment’s lapse of attention and I could easily broach the boat.

    I took in a big gulp of salt air and in that moment I experienced soul-wrenching ecstasy.

    Whatever consciousness expansion and realization of human potential happened on our trip, it happened in moments like this, and it was all in the getting there.

    I believe it’s the same with our ordinary, humdrum realities– our everyday sojourns through time and space.

    Who says you have to hop on a plane and fly to some foreign country to experience the ‘other’?

    All the psychological benefits of travel that accrue to the lucky bastard who has the jack to get over ‘there’ are available to the poor son of a bitch stuck at home, too.

    All he needs is some bio-sourced DMT or 5-MeO-DMT to smoke, and he’s on his way to high adventure and possible enlightenment.

    Spanish cathedrals and Venetian palaces cannot compare to the glorious visions of the universe he may see (the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey was nothing, Keir Dullea would be envious) after being launched in this neural rocketship.

    After all, jets are not the only way to fly, and some drugs, like these, can stimulate your mind in a way that enhances creativity.

    The movement may be all in your mind, but the newness of the experience (it’s always new, even for the experienced psychonaut) is sure to generate new thoughts.;-)

  • Great post on this topic. I totally agree. Travel and moving around stimulates your brain and changes your brain’s neurochemistry. Thus, it helps you think in new ways that will expand one’s learning capabilities.

  • Lehrer writes: “our mind is most likely to solve our stubbornest problems while sitting in a swank Left Bank café. So instead of contemplating that buttery croissant, we should be mulling over those domestic riddles we just can’t solve.”

    I disagree- I think that it isn’t simply being in a different environment that helps you to see new problems in a different way- I think that an important piece of the puzzle is not being intently focused on those same problems while traveling. When you’re traveling you have more of a clear head- you’re focused only on what’s right in front of you. Your mind ends up wandering back to those same problems, but it can see them in a different way, outside of the patterned thinking that has led you to the same dead end when tackling these problems head-on. I find the same effect when I completely put aside what I am working on and let my mind wander. What are your thoughts?

    (If interested, my post on the subject is here:

  • Hmm, it seems true. Every since I started traveling on summer vacations Ive gotten very good grades in both high school and my college courses. I’ve also became one of the smartest ones in some of the classes that use to be complicated for me.

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