There’s a feeling that you get when you arrive in a new place: the adrenaline buzzes through your body, and everyday things that usually pass you by suddenly seem to be full of potential. We know that travel opens your eyes to the minutiae of life, and studies suggest that it opens up your brain as well.
When we find ourselves in a new situation, our brain sends out messages as it works to understand our surroundings. These messages create new neural pathways, which connect different parts of the brain. This is important for good cognitive health, as it keeps the connections flexible and receptive to change. So what exactly is it about ‘travel’ that gets the cogs in our head turning?
1. Your perspective will be challenged
Living and working in a new country means living and working outside of your social comfort zone. When we enjoy an interaction with someone for the first time, our brain releases dopamine, which makes you feel good and encourages you to pay more attention to the information you’re hearing. When travelling, you’ll also meet people with different beliefs and opinions to yours and you’ll be surrounded by cultures unlike your own. Listening to alternative viewpoints allows us to develop our own notions and understandings of certain topics, altering our existing thought patterns.
2. You’ll expand your vocabulary
When you travel to a country where you don’t speak the language, your challenge begins the moment you step off the plane. Very quickly you have to learn sentences and phrases that will allow you to get around; there is nothing more rewarding than having a successful conversation in your non-native tongue. Studies have shown that learning a second language can improve general intelligence and reading abilities as well as improving memory. With every word you pick up, you unlock the potential to talk to a wider group of people and understand subtler nuances of their culture. Yes, there may be moments of miscommunication, but surely it’s better to have tried (and laughed about it!), than not to have tried at all.
3. Your daily routine will be different
When the environment, language and people around you are all new, then little room is left for outdated and stale ideas. Whilst you’re travelling, you’ll learn a lot different skills (are you even a real traveller if you haven’t perfected the art of packing the smallest bag with all of your worldly belongings?!), and have to constantly switch up your routines and habits for approaching everyday activities. This diversity keeps the brain activated; nothing dulls the mind like monotony and we need to shake things up in order to feel motivated and inspired. As Clinical Neuropsychologist Paul Nussbaum explains: “when you expose your brain to an environment that’s novel and complex or new and difficult, the brain literally reacts… a new challenge or environment will cause the brain to grow dendrites which “grow the brain’s capacity.”
4. You’ll learn to adapt to a new environment
Mundane activities like going supermarket shopping, catching the bus and going for a morning jog become much more difficult when you aren’t familiar with your surroundings. As you learn to live like the locals do, you’re improving your brain’s ability to deal with problems, and putting your memory skills to the test. ‘Cognitive flexibility’ is the mind’s ability to switch between different ideas, and see deeper connections. Every problem you solve — whether it’s successfully locating the hostel or ordering your favourite drink at the bar— builds your confidence and flexes that grey matter much like solving maths problems, or filling in the crossword on a Sunday morning.
5. You’ll get more comfortable with being uncomfortable
Do you remember the first time that you travelled to an unknown city or country? Putting yourself out of your comfort zone is nerve-wracking and takes a lot of guts. The more often we move past our fears, the less scary they become. The brain practices tackling ‘hard’ problems and gets more agile at tackling them, which gives you more confidence to chase after your dreams until they become a reality.
Regular travels to new places helps us to feel happier and keeps the brain active, as we connect with new people and ideas. Exploring feeds your creativity and awareness of the world around you; it’s good for the mind and the soul. As if you needed another excuse to book that flight…
Thanks a lot to travel writer and contributor Isabelle for sharing this interesting perspective on travelling with us (and for giving us more reasons to plan a trip)! When not travelling, you will find Isabelle drinking tea or taking pictures. Isabelle is also currently working on her first novel. You can find her photos and musings on Instagram and Twitter. Go check out her website and follow her journey.