Why We Travel

(Last Updated On: December 10, 2020)

I came back from the cruise to find it difficult to know what to tell people about my trip. My description of it as “interesting” seems to either leave people perplexed or feeling sorry for me for not having a “wonderful” vacation.

People want to hear about adventures in exotic places, but that often isn’t what leaves the greatest impression on me. As a photographer I’m looking for patterns in light and shape, but I think maybe I am really seeking the patterns that form the world itself; its geology an geography, flora and fauna, and – most of all –its people, their culture, and the places they create. . . and maybe even the patterns that make up who I am.

The cruise was interesting in part because there was plenty of time to puzzle over a whole variety of patterns with a limited ability to check them against the familiar daily patterns of home and work. That is seems valuable even if it doesn’t make for a very good story.

Jonah Lehrer’s piece “Why We Travel” (published in McSweeny’s and republished in Lehrer’s blog The Frontal Cortex) addresses this question in a way that provides clarity and insight to my own rather vague thoughts.

Lehrer notes that new scientific thinking suggests that getting away “is an essential habit of effective thinking. It’s not about vacation, or relaxation, or sipping daiquiris on an unspoiled tropical beach: it’s about the tedious act itself, putting some miles between home and wherever you happen to spend the night.”

A few excerpts from his article explain how this works:

When we escape from the place we spend most of our time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas we’d previously suppressed. We start thinking about obscure possibilities–corn can fuel cars!–that never would have occurred to us if we’d stayed back on the farm. Furthermore, this more relaxed sort of cognition comes with practical advantages, especially when we’re trying to solve difficult problems. Look, for instance, at a recent experiment led by the psychologist Lile Jia at Indiana University. He randomly divided a few dozen under-grads into two groups, both of which were asked to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. (This is known as a creative generation task.) One group of students was told that the task was developed by Indiana University students studying abroad in Greece (the distant condition), while the other group was told that the task was developed by Indiana students studying in Indiana (the near condition). At first glance, it’s hard to believe that such a slight and seemingly irrelevant difference would alter the performance of the subjects. Why would it matter where the task was conceived?

Nevertheless, Jia found a striking difference between the two groups: when students were told that the task was imported from Greece, they came up with significantly more transportation possibilities. They didn’t just list buses, trains, and planes; they cited horses, triremes, spaceships, bicycles, and even Segway scooters. Because the source of the problem was far away, the subjects felt less constrained by their local transport options; they didn’t just think about getting around in Indiana, they thought about get-ting around all over the world, and even in deep space.

. . . The brain is a neural tangle of near infinite possibility, which means that it spends a lot of time and energy choosing what not to notice. As a result, creativity is traded away for efficiency; we think in literal prose, not symbolist poetry. A bit of distance, however, helps loosen the chains of cognition, making it easier to see some-thing new in the old; the mundane is grasped from a slightly more abstract perspective. . .

. . . . According to the researchers, the experience of another culture endows us with a valuable open-minded-ness, making it easier to realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings. Consider the act of leaving food on the plate: in China, this is often seen as a compliment, a signal that the host has provided enough to eat. But in America the same act is a subtle insult, an indication that the food wasn’t good enough to finish.

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. . . .

Of course, this mental flexibility doesn’t come from mere distance. It’s not enough to just change time zones, or to schlep across the world only to eat LeBig Mac instead of a Quarter-Pounder with cheese. Instead, 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.

So let’s not pretend that travel is always fun, or that we endure the jet lag for pleasure. We don’t spend ten 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 vacation after my vacation.) 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.


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.

Yes. Exactly.

Read the whole piece.

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