The latest McSweeney’s production is a marvel. It’s in the form of a daily newspaper – The San Francisco Panorama – and is yet another reminder that the newspaper remains an essential literary form, a potent mixture of breaking news and obscure stories. (If your local indie bookstore stocks the Panorama, be sure to buy a copy.) I was fortunate enough to write for the Panorama Magazine on the cognitive benefits of travel, which I’ve pasted in below.
It’s 4:15 in the morning, and my alarm clock has just stolen away a lovely dream. My eyes are open but my pupils are still closed, so all I see is gauzy darkness. For a brief moment, I manage to convince myself that my wakefulness is a mistake, and that I can safely go back to sleep. But then I roll over and see my zippered suitcase, bulging with too many little tubes of toothpaste. I let out a sleepy groan: I’m going to the airport.
The taxi is late. There should be an adjective (a synonym of sober, only worse) to describe the state of mind that comes from waiting in the orange glare of a streetlight before drinking a cup of coffee. And then the taxi gets lost. And then I get nervous, be- cause my flight leaves in an hour. And then we’re here, and I’m hurtled into the harsh in- candescence of Terminal B, running with a suitcase so that I can wait in a long security line. My belt buckle sets off the metal detec- tor, my four-ounce stick of deodorant is con- fiscated, and my left sock has a gaping hole.
And then I get to the gate. By now, you can probably guess the punch line of this very banal story: my flight has been can- celed. I will be stuck in this terminal for the next 218 minutes, my only consolation a cup of caffeine and a McGriddle sandwich. And then I will miss my connecting flight and wait, in a different city with the same menu, for another plane. And then, fourteen hours later, I’ll be there.
Why do we travel? It’s not the flying I mind–I will always be awed by the physics that get a fat metal bird into the upper tropo- sphere. The rest of the journey, however, can feel like a tedious lesson in the ills of modernity, from the predawn x-ray screening to
the sad airport malls peddling crappy souvenirs. It’s globalization in a nutshell, and it sucks.
And yet here we are, herded in ever- greater numbers onto planes that stay the same size. Sometimes, of course, we travel because we have to. Because in this digital age there is still something important about the analog handshake. Or eating Mom’s turkey on Thanksgiving. Or seeing the girl- friend during her semester break.
But most travel isn’t non-negotiable. (In 2008, only 30 percent of trips over fifty miles were done for business.) Instead, we travel because we want to, because the annoyances of the airport are outweighed by the visceral thrill of being someplace new. Because work is stressful and our blood pressure is too high and we need a vacation. Because home is boring. Because the flights were on sale. Because Paris is Paris.
Travel, in other words, is a basic human desire. We’re a migratory species, even if our migrations are powered by jet fuel and Chicken McNuggets. But here’s my question: is this collective urge to travel – to put some distance between ourselves and everything we know–still a worthwhile compulsion? Or is it like the taste for saturated fat, one of those instincts we should have left behind in the Pleistocene epoch? Because if travel is just about fun then I think the TSA killed it.
The good news, at least for those of youreading this while stuck on a tarmac eating stale pretzels, is that pleasure is not the only consolation of travel. In fact, several new science papers suggest that getting away–andit doesn’t even matter where you’re going–is an essential habit of effective thinking. It’s not about vacation, or relaxation, or sipping daiquiris on an unspoiled tropical beach: it’sabout the tedious act itself, putting somemiles between home and wherever you hap-pen to spend the night.
Let’s begin with the most literal aspect of travel, which is that it’s a verb of movement. Thanks to modern engine technology,we can now move through space at an inhu-man speed. The average walk covers threemiles per hour, which is two hundred times slower than the cruising speed of a Boeing 737. There’s something inherently useful about such speedy movement, which allows us to switch our physical locations with sur-real ease. For the first time in human history,we can outrun the sun and segue from oneclimate to another in a single day.
The reason such travels are mentally useful involves a quirk of cognition, in whichproblems that feel “close”–and the closeness can be physical, temporal, or even emotional–get contemplated in a more concrete manner. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful–it allows us to focus on the facts at hand–it also inhibits our imagination.Consider a field of corn. When you’re standing in the middle of the field, surrounded by the tall cellulose stalks and fray-ing husks, the air smelling faintly offertilizer and popcorn, your mind is automatically drawn to thoughts that revolve aroundthe primary meaning of corn, which is that it’s a plant, a cereal, a staple of Midwestern farming.
But now imagine that same field of corn from a different perspective. Instead of standing on a farm, you’re now in the midst of a crowded city street, dense with taxis and pedestrians. (And yet, for some peculiar reason, you’re still thinking about corn.) The plant will no longer just be a plant: instead,your vast neural network will pump out all sorts of associations. You’ll think about high-fructose corn syrup, obesity, and Michael Pollan; you’ll contemplate ethanol and the Iowa caucus, those corn mazes for kids at state fairs and the deliciousness of succotash, made with bacon and lima beans. The noun is now a web of tangents, a loom of remote connections.
What does this have to do with travel? 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 thepsychologist 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 oftransportation 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 study-ing 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 slightand seemingly irrelevant difference would alter the performance of the subjects. Why would it matter where the task was con-ceived?
Nevertheless, Jia found a striking difference between the two groups: when studentswere told that the task was imported from Greece, they came up with significantly moretransportation possibilities. They didn’t just list buses, trains, and planes; they cited horses, triremes, spaceships, bicycles, andeven 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.
In a second study, Jia found that peoplewere much better at solving a series of in-sight puzzles when told that the puzzlescame all the way from California, and notfrom down the hall. These subjects consid-ered a far wider range of alternatives, whichmade them more likely to solve the challeng-ing brain teasers. There is something intel-lectually liberating about distance.
The problem, of course, is that most of our problems are local–people in Indian aare worried about Indiana, not the eastern Mediterranean or California. This leaves two options: 1) find a clever way to trick ourselves into believing that our nearby dilemma is actually distant, or 2) go some-place far away and then think about our trou-bles back home. Given the limits ofself-deception–we can’t even tickle ourselves properly–travel seems like the more practical possibility.
Of course, it’s not enough to simply get on a plane: if we want to experience the cre-ative benefits of travel, then we have to re-think its raison d’ètre. Most people, after all, escape to Paris so they don’t have to think about those troubles they left behind. But here’s the ironic twist: our mind is most likely to solve our stubbornest problems while sitting in a swank Left Bank café. So instead of contemplating that buttery croissant, we should be mulling over those domestic riddles we just can’t solve.
The larger lesson, though, is that our thoughts are shackled by the familiar. The brain is a neural tangle of near infinite possibility, which means that it spends alot of time and energy choosing what notto notice. As a result, creativity is traded away for efficiency; we think in literal prose, not symbolist poetry. A bit of dis-tance, however, helps loosen the chains of cognition, making it easier to see some-thing new in the old; the mundane isgrasped from a slightly more abstractperspective. As T. S. Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets: “We shall not cease fromexploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started anknow the place for the first time.”
But distance isn’t the only psychological perk of travel. Earlier this year, re-searchers at INSEAD, a business school iFrance, and at the Kellogg School ofManagement in Chicago, reported thatstudents who had lived abroad were 20percent more likely to solve a computersimulation of a classic psychological task known as the Duncker candle problem than students who had never lived outsidof their birth country.
The Duncker problem has a simple premise: a subject is given (or, in this casshown a picture of) a cardboard box con-taining a few thumbtacks, a book ofmatches, and a waxy candle. They are tolto determine how to attach the candle to piece of corkboard so that it can burnproperly and no wax drips onto the floor. Nearly 90 percent of people pursue thesame two strategies, even though neitherstrategy can succeed. They elect to tackthe candle directly to the board, whichwould cause the candle wax to shatter. Or they say they’d melt the candle with the matches so that it sticks to the board. Buthe wax wouldn’t hold; the candle would fall to the floor. At this point, most people surrender. They assume that the puzzle is impossible, that it’s a stupid experiment and a waste of time. In fact, only a slim minority of subjects–often less than 25 percent–manage to come up with the solution, which involves attaching the can-dle to the cardboard box with wax andthen tacking the cardboard box to thecorkboard. Unless people have an insight about the box–that it can do more than hold thumbtacks–they’ll waste candle after candle. They’ll repeat theirfailures while they’re waiting fora breakthrough. This is known as the bias of “functional fixed-ness,” since we’re typically terri-ble at coming up with new functions for old things. That’s why we’re so surprised to learn that an oven can be turned into a small closet, or that an apple can be used as a bong.
What does this have to dowith living abroad? Accordingto the researchers, the experi-ence of another culture endows us with a valuable open-minded-ness, making it easier to realize that a single thing can have mul-tiple meanings. Consider the act of leaving food on the plate: in China, this is often seen as acompliment, 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 re-alize that there are different (and equally valid) ways of interpret-ing 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 initialguesses. After all, maybe they carry candles in thumbtackboxes in China. Maybe there’s abetter way to attach a candle to a wall.
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 di-versity 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 inthe Let’s Go guidebook, and that certainly don’t exist back home.
So let’s not pretend thattravel 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 lostluggage. (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 beenchanged, and that changes everything.