How Travel makes us Smarter, Wiser and All-Around More Awesome

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.

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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.

Lehrer continues:

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.

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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?

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43 thoughts on “How Travel makes us Smarter, Wiser and All-Around More Awesome”

  1. Steph, great post, wonderful introspection with no fluff and a dose of reality. With your permission, I am linking to it on my new travel post (about to be published) on one day in Amsterdam! Thank you!!!

  2. Hey I really love your blog, and I loved your post, I found you at the Twobackpackers site, World is just amazing, traveling keeps me alive, knowing cultures, tasting ,seeing , new things ….

  3. I think perhaps that some people are misunderstanding the point you are trying to make. Of course just because you travel doesn’t automatically make you far more intelligent in other academic areas but I believe that it does make you a more rounded individual.

    For me personally it has made me more aware and tolerant of differing sets of values and beliefs from around the world. Our environment shapes us and it can only be good to experience several environments and draw good points from each of them.
    .-= Dave´s last blog ..10 Essential Overseas Travel Tips =-.

    1. Thanks Dave I think you see what I’m getting at. Travel is not going to teach you your periodic table, but it MIGHT make you a better scientist by changing the way you look at challenges.

  4. Travel a possible cure for stupidity? I am sure that a few skills can be learned but as to whether it actually makes any one smarter, I am not convinced. Not even universtities can make the stupid smarter, just better educated.
    .-= Guy McLaren´s last blog ..Mpumalanga’s Hidden Gems =-.

    1. The value of both a good university education and travel is that it teaches you to be a better thinker not so much that it boosts your IQ. If you can examine and solve problems in new ways and express your ideas more clearly then I would say yeah, you just got smarter.

  5. So true! How can your mind not expand when you’re on the road?!
    .-= Candice´s last blog ..The Front Step Poop Story =-.

  6. Totally agree! Traveling (but mostly living in that country for awhile) allows you to see things from different perspectives and opens your mind up to different ideas. It also opens yourself up to accept people who are different. I love traveling and hope to always have the resources to!

  7. I definitely agree that travel makes us smarter. I used to be the most indecisive person, but travel doesn’t exactly allow for that. I’m better at thinking on my feet and I’ve learned to appreciate a history lesson much more when one comes along!

  8. Travel has given me so much joy and has impacted who I am as a person tremendously. Scared, insecure, weak, shy, and judgemental were just some of the character traits that travel helped to transform into something so much better. Over 10 years of a life of travel…. a beautiful life. Who could ever complain or be anything other than extremely grateful.
    .-= Caz Makepeace´s last blog ..Daily Travel Photo: PasPaley Pearl Farm Kuri Bay, Broome, Western Australia =-.

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