Jonah Lehrer wrote a thoughtful article in the San Francisco Panorama about the cognitive benefits of travel. Travel is not only for business or pleasure; travel allows people to think differently about problems and enhances creativity.
Why do we travel? It’s not the flying I mind–I will always be awed by the physics that get a fat metal bird into the upper troposphere. The rest of the journey, however, can feel like a tedious lesson in the ills of modernity, from the predawn x-ray screening to the sad airport malls peddling crappy souvenirs. It’s globalization in a nutshell, and it sucks.
According to the researchers, the experience of another culture endows us with a valuable open-minded-ness, making it easier to realize that a single thing can have mul-tiple 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 re-alize that there are different (and equally valid) ways of interpret-ing 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.
Of course, this mental flexibility doesn’t come from mere distance. 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 di-versity 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. Even in this globalized age, slouching toward similarity, we can still marvel at all the earthly things that weren’t included inthe Let’s Go guidebook, and that certainly don’t exist back home.
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 lostluggage. (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 beenchanged, and that changes everything.
Wow. I never quite thought about it this way, but it’s so true!