I like to travel for a lot of reasons; it can be really fun, it makes me feel more alive and I love meeting new people and exploring new places. There’s also another, deeper motivation I feel to propel myself around the world: I feel like it makes me better. The constant flow of new experiences and challenges shapes me. It forces me to learn not just about the world around me, but also about myself.
In a recent article for The Guardian, Jonan Lehrer explains how travel actually can make people smarter. Not because former backpackers can bore guests at cocktail parties with their impressive knowledge of the Inca Trail, but because studies have shown that traveling gives individuals a sense of perspective that actually makes them better problem solvers.
In the article Lehrer describes a series of experiments, where participants had to solve hypothetical problems based both locally and in a far away place. Participants consistently came up with more creative and inclusive solutions for the far away problems. This suggests that physical distance provides a kind of emotional barrier, which leads to more logical perspective:
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 initial guesses. After all, maybe they carry candles in drawing-pin boxes in China. Maybe there’s a better way to attach a candle to a wall.
On a more introspective level, moving yourself physically helps you to look at your own life and problems from a new angle. The issues in your life just LOOK different when you are pondering them in a new city or on a foreign beach. People need perspective before they can truly see themselves.
So let’s not pretend that travel is always fun. We don’t spend 10 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 holiday after my holiday.) 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.
Now, this is not a high and mighty blog post about how people who travel are better than people who don’t. There are many paths to self-discovery of course. Travel is certainly not the cheapest or even the easiest one. But it IS stimulating. I’m sure everyone has experienced that sensation of coming home feeling like a different person, even though nothing physically has changed. It’s an odd feeling, but an energizing one.
For serious travelers travel is not an escape from the world. Intellectually, I know that travel is not going to solve all my problems. The things that are wrong with your life are going to be right there waiting for you no matter where your passport takes you. But the way we deal with these problems is dependent on our outlook and perspective on the world. This reprioritization, this way of looking at things outside the box of my regular life forces me to grow and change. And that’s what I can’t get enough of.
Over the next couple weeks I’m going to be recounting some of the major lessons I’ve learned while traveling. What are some ways that you’ve learned and changed through travel?