Take a Trip and Rewire Your Brain
Vacations are nice, for sure. They give us a chance to slam on the brakes and exhale when life starts to feel like a ride on a runaway train. But travel—meaningful travel—now, that changes you. I’m talking about being dropped in a foreign culture, left to navigate the ins and outs of daily life in an unfamiliar setting. Beyond the obvious positives (cultural awareness and understanding, love, peace, kumbaya, and all that) there’s one benefit that’s particularly helpful for writers. Meaningful travel literally rewires your brain and pumps up your creative juices.
This is something I’ve long suspected.
Mind you, I’m far from being a world traveler. I possess neither the time nor the bank account. But through my husband and my former career in the foreign service, I have a connection to Germany that allows me to immerse myself in that culture whenever we visit. From one day to the next I’m speaking German, eating schnitzels and Nierenspieβ (kidney kabobs—don’t judge me), running errands for my mother-in-law, getting caught up on the latest town news while relaxing at a café, etc. My time in Germany has, among other things, produced three short stories, an idea for a novel, and led to major decisions about my writing career. During my most recent stay, I began to wonder what it was, besides just having more free time, that made my Germany trips so productive.
All it took was a quick Google search.
I found out there’s some actual science going on. A number of studies in recent years have concluded that travel does indeed change the brain. According to Adam Galinsky, a Professor at Columbia University Business School, the critical factor is engaging in other cultures: “Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms…”
According to studies by Galinsky and other researchers, here’s basically how it works:
1). Being dumped into an unfamiliar place requires you to figure things out and often think on your feet, thus stimulating your brain and causing it to form new connections. One study showed that retirees who travel experience 75% higher rates of mental stimulation and have an increased attention span and short term memory. As someone closing in on a certain age, I was very happy to read this.
2). Aside from all that problem solving and thinking, the simple act of taking in new sights, smells, and tastes helps create new neural pathways. It also develops your sense of reality and understanding of the world. Put it all together, and you get a boost in creativity.
Just a few days ago I returned from my two-week stay in Germany with a complete outline for my next novel, an idea for a poem inspired by something I saw on my layover in Copenhagen, a setting for a future novel, a brand new hairstyle that’s much easier and looks better than what I’ve been sporting recently, and last but not least, the idea for this blog entry. Who knows what I could have come up with after another week or so. Perhaps a solution to my cat’s weight problem, or a creative way to get more vegetables in my diet.
And what’s even more encouraging is that one can experience this phenomenon without flying off to far and exotic locales. In fact, Galinsky and his colleagues found that larger cultural distances often produced lower outcomes than more familiar cultures. They hypothesize that travelers might be so intimidated by the more exotic settings that they’re discouraged from fully immersing. So, a road trip to a culturally different part of your own state or region could possibly do the trick. Or if you’re in an area that offers more diversity, spending time at an ethnic café, restaurant, or shop may be enough to boost your brain.
One distinct memory I have from my trip was simply relaxing on my mother-in-law’s sunny terrace and really, for the first time, paying attention to all the unfamiliar bird calls and songs that “interrupted” my writing sessions. That led me to realize how little use I get out of my own back patio (which is not nearly as nice, but does face the woods). Once I figure out a way to deal with the mosquitoes, I’m going spend a lot more time out there. As for travel, I’ll have to stay stateside for the rest of the year, but I’ve already started a list of places to explore on the weekends. I’m thinking of going with a theme, like searching out independent cafés that are popular with locals, preferably in out-of-the-way towns I’ve never visited before. Because I have to tell you, one thing I miss terribly about Germany are the cafés. But that’s for another blog post.
I’d love to hear if anyone else has experienced a creative boost from traveling!