No one sees the nuances of culture quite like the native who returns after spending time abroad. Peter Hessler brilliantly captures this experience in a funny and fascinating piece for The New Yorker (subscription required). Witness too David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise and Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself.
Jonah Lehrer, writing for McSweeney’s on the cognitive benefits of travel, helps explain the neuroscience behind why this is so.
New research indicates that getting away, regardless of where you go, stimulates creative thinking. It allows us, as Proust would say, to “see with new eyes.” This is because when we’re in our day-to-day environment, we tend to contemplate our circumstances in concrete, fixed ways. Problems that seem close, whether physically, temporally or emotionally, have a way of constricting our thoughts and limiting our range of potential solutions.
Conversely, the experience of travel—of escaping our familiar environment and all of the associations that we attach to it—frees up ideas and possibilities that we’d previously (and unconsciously) suppressed.
“The experience of another culture endows us with a valuable open-mindedness, making it easier to realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings.
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.
This increased creativity appears to be a side-effect of difference: we need to change cultures, to experience the disorienting diversity 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 in the Let’s Go guidebook, and that certainly don’t exist back home.”
Lehrer suggests that we are an innately migratory species. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation, the large majority of trips over 50 miles are non-business, ie they’re taken by choice. So why is it we’re voluntarily subjecting ourselves to cramped airplanes, long security lines, surly TSA agents and lousy food?
“We travel because we need to,” he concludes. ”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.”
Photo credit: danorbit