“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate.”— Pico Iyer
There’s nothing like a good adventure to bust you out of your comfort zone. Traveling to a new city, or a new country and culture, whirls you around and turns your beliefs upside down. It puts your newly acquired self-sufficiency to the test.
Travel—the kind that introduces you to new experiences and new people—challenges you in ways a classroom or a textbook can’t. To paraphrase travel journalist Pico Iyer, if a college diploma is a passport (into the work world), a passport is also a diploma (for learning firsthand about our world). Travel not only gives you a break from the daily grind of school-job-study-repeat, it changes you in ways you can’t imagine, by widening your horizons. It also brings more happiness and spontaneity into your life.
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Whether you’re wandering through ancient Roman ruins, zip-lining through the Costa Rican rain forest, or relaxing on the beach in Thailand, your brain is hitting the reset button. And according to at least one study, packing a bag and hitting the road may actually make you smarter. Here’s how:
1. Travel ignites your creativity
When you immerse yourself in a new culture and take the time to listen and learn, you challenge the brain’s potential to adapt to new situations and sensory input. In an interview for The Atlantic, Columbia Business School professor Adam Galinsky noted that international travel gives a big boost to cognitive flexibility—the brain’s ability to jump between different ideas—which is an important component of creativity.
While there are a number of studies detailing how international travel sparks those neural connections, you don’t really have to pull a Hemingway to find your muse. In fact, any new sights, sounds, tastes, and smells can fire up the creativity synapses in your brain. Whether you venture off to foreign lands or spend the weekend studiously exploring a new location closer to home, keep your head up and your eyes open. Chat with the locals, stroll through a museum, and order something exotic off the menu—you never know what may come of it.
2. Travel kick-starts your problem-solving skills
You know what they say about the best-laid plans. “Travel by definition is dropping your brain into a place that’s novel and complex,” said Paul Nussbaum, a clinical neuropsychologist and adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh, in an interview for the Chicago Tribune. “You’re stunned a little bit, and your brain reacts by being engaged, and you begin to process on a deep level.”
Even the stress that comes with travel and being thrown out of routines can be helpful. “Some stress, some anxiety is good because it positions the brain to be more attentive and more engaged,” Nussbaum added. Losing your passport, missing your connecting flight, or getting separated from your companions will force you to think on your feet. These kinds of travel mishaps may seem like your worst nightmare, but the truth is, problem solving on the fly forces you to focus on solutions and gives you practical skills and experience that translate back to life at home. Plus, successful problem solving builds confidence and makes you a better decision maker.
In other words, if you can effectively navigate your way through a tricky border crossing or an unexpected layover in no-man’s-land, you’ll be able to put those newly honed skills to the test the next time you need to ask for more time on an assignment or negotiate house rules with your roommates.
3. Travel tweaks your perspective
True story: When four American students set out to live in Guatemala on a dollar a day for two months, they battled hunger, parasites, and extreme financial stress. At times their situation was dire, but with a little help from their neighbors, they adapted and survived. The experience prompted them to come home and make a film, design curriculum, and create similar projects around living on a dollar a day in other parts of the world. They’ve taken their stories to Capitol Hill and worked on projects with the United Nations. Not exactly the sort of thing they could have done if they’d never left campus.
Global travel pulls you out of your comfort zone and places you in the direct path of people who are culturally, socially, and economically different from you. And while you don’t have to immerse yourself in extreme hardship to broaden your horizons, if you approach new places with an open mind, a sense of curiosity, and a respect for cultural disparity, chances are you will come home with a deeper understanding of how the rest of the world lives.
4. And, finally, travel may actually make you smarter
Breaking out of your old routines—the ones you stumble through on autopilot—will increase your clarity and make your mind sharper.
Whether hiking the backcountry in Colorado or learning Spanish in Barcelona, just about anything you do to test yourself in an unfamiliar environment is going to keep your brain firing on all pistons. For example, learning a second language actually elevates your IQ, helping form new neural connections in the brain.
“When you expose your brain to an environment that’s novel and complex or new and difficult, the brain literally reacts,” Nussbaum explained. In fact, these situations prompt the growth of nerve cell extensions called dendrites, which receive messages from other nerve cells, thereby increasing the brain’s capacity. “Your brain literally begins to look like a jungle.”
Just to be clear: Spending your summer sipping fruity drinks on a tropical beach may be relaxing, but it’s not going to fire up your brain and generate new neural pathways. The key is to find the right balance: downtime to help you unwind, and pointed exploration to flex the gray matter.
Travel, at heart, said Iyer in his blog Why We Travel, “is a way to keep our minds mobile and awake.”
So what are you waiting for?