Why We Travel

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.


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Beautiful article, Jonah: It does not sound like our airports have become more user-friendly in the time since I retired as a pilot. I hope that conditions improve for passengers, but I for one always looked forward to McDonald's Coffee and a Mac-griddle.

By OftenWrongTed (not verified) on 10 Dec 2009 #permalink

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.

The word you're looking for is "knurd". "The opposite of being drunk, it's as sober as you can ever be. It strips away all the illusion, all the comforting pink fog in which people normally spend their lives, and lets them see and think clearly for the first time ever. Then, after they've screamed a bit, they make sure they never get knurd again" - Terry Pratchett

Also see http://wiki.lspace.org/wiki/Knurd

"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."

There is a word with a similar meaning. It's "knurd", and was invented by Terry Pratchett to describe the state of horrified consciousness that results from drinking coffee to sober up and becoming too sober.

Personally, I love airports and flying, and a large proportion of my dreams are set in airports. I love going to the observation deck, watching the baggage handlers and looking for obscure airlines. We flew a lot when I was a kid and lots of airlines would give out metal pilot wing pins and log books for logging flight information. Good times...

It's a rite of passage. In the liminal threshold between sky and ground, familiar and unfamiliar, fear and certainty, expansion and reduction of world view, we somewhat comeback to our survival animal skills.

I am curious to know how the effects of multilingualism mirror, or differ from, the effects of travel. Multilingualism is certainly more difficult to achieve, at least for me, than mere travel--but it certainly should provide differing perspectives.

Polyglots haven't cornered the market on creativity, but I imagine there is a reason that some of the greatest minds have mastered more than one language.

Stimulating topic. No wonder the word for the state of being very much a *non-traveller*, parochialism, is not a compliment.
Too bad the world is so large and full of cognition-boosting sights and experiences, and air travel is so harmful to the atmosphere (not to mention tough on the travellers). I find it difficult to reconcile my environmental ideals with my neophilia (and considerable regard for keeping my brain happy).

A really very enjoyable post with everyday practical benefits. It's interesting to me at least that more than one philosopher for example has taken time to walk, that is hiking or just a daily stroll to contemplate. In addition I thought the corn example that you gave was great! Faced not just with enough distance to bring your usual thoughts into perspective but also to add fresh insight from a new environment seems like a good source of creative problem solving.
I used to paint a lot. When I painted I would often have to stand at a distance from the painting in order to not add too much detail to one single area at the exclusion of the whole. It seems that faced with immediacy of life we all to readily get involved in details at the exclusion of what may be a better perspective.

I thought you might find the Ganzfeld effect interesting in relation to your post. The Ganzfeld effect is when people hallucinate when there is no variation in the visual field. I write about it in relation to consciousness here but also in relation to the qualitative experience (poetically I try at least!!!) here & here.
The reason I thought this interesting is that I imagine that there is something fundamentally important about variation in the environment. It would seem that if we don't have it through travel then possibly the brain/mind will invent it.

I donât doubt that familiarity can block a view, but I find your travel as cognitive fuel argument unpersuasive and even trite (do I tip in Paris?). As for necessary for creativity, how do you explain Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, not to mention Proust (sorry to say Iâve not read your book yet, but it is on my wish list). Iâm thinking of âIf Itâs Tuesday, This Must Be Belgiumâ (7 countries in 18 days), the kind of travel that is as lacking in true cultural nutrition as fast food is lacking in true food nutrition. In US cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, one need only to step outside to experience a wealth of diverse cultures. Perhaps living a significant part of my life a block or two from the Pacific has given me a special view of travel. Once in the water, and under water, in waves and through waves â we get a brain rush; then thereâs the paddling back out and the lull. Sitting on a surfboard in the lull beats sitting in a swank Parisian café any day. But I like number 13 comment above â perhaps you are on to something, a craving we have for seeing things new, different, yet it somehow ignores the sameness that underlies our common experiences â perhaps this is the source of metaphor. But I donât think travel is necessarily the answer. Iâm thinking of Henry Jamesâs comment, referring to the girl who grows up in Dakota and never leaves the farm: A writer is someone upon whom no experience is wasted; and of John Cage: itâs not irritating to be where one is, itâs only irritating to think one would rather be someplace else. Weâve only to turn the familiar channel to experience a new sound to fuel the brainâs need for âMore input, more input, Stephanie,â the robot Number Five cries, in the movie âShort Circuit.â

Could this play a role in the value of hallucinogenic 'trips' as well? Both forms of travel invoke expanded perspectives, and both have distinct risks, but could different mechanisms of strangeness achieve the same end?

âThe whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land.â G. K. Chesterton

The view from Macchu Picchu is, in fact, worth an awful lot of inconvenience. I think the outward journey is a kind of metaphor for the inward journey we must make -- the "Hero's Journey" to which Joseph Campbell referred. When you travel to other cultures and time zones you learn as much about yourself.

It's actually really easy to get the benefit of distance by means of a mental 'trick.'

In NLP, we've been using this mind hack for years, and it's a central part of many of our processes of mental change. The great thing is, you don't have to 'believe' your problem is distant to get the creative benefits of distance. All you have to do is 'imagine' it's distant.

We combine this with a 1st-person to 3rd-person shift to create a powerful change technique that goes like this:

1) Imagine some recurring problem you feel stuck in and unable to resolve.

2) Imagine a specific instance of that problem, and imagine yourself in the midst of it.

3) Move 'outside yourself' so that you're seeing yourself as an actor in the situation.

4) 'Move away' until you feel 'distant' from the problem situation.

5) Either direct the you in the distant problem state in a new behavior based on your new perspective, give the distant you new emotional resources to deal with it, or have a role model show the distant you how to do it.

6) Have the distant you practice it until you're satisfied with the results.

7) Move back 'inside yourself' and try it in the 1st person. Rehearse it until it feels natural.

It combines the perspective of 'distance' with the learning of doing.

It works wonders. Try it out sometime.

That said, I've found that physical distance has this effect on me without the effort. (Unless you count the effort of travel. Tosh.)

I am a comedy stage hypnotist and am constantly amazed at what happens during my shows. One does not have to fly away to experience this resourceful state that solves problems and allows creativity to flourish. Hypnosis allows people to bypass that "critical factor," effectively shutting down the prefrontal cortex. For example, at a recent show I suggested to one of the volunteers that he was a contestant on "America's Got Talent" and that he was the world's best Michael Jackson impersonator. He did MJ better than MJ. One of the volunteer's friends told me after the show that this volunteer was always very shy and never danced when they went to bars or parties. Examples like this abound during the show. Hypnosis is a powerful way to tap into the unlimited resources of one's subconscious mind.

Funny enough, I'd used to run as far as possible geographically when a relationship failed in the past.

Over time, and after trekking/flying through a few continents, enduring long hours on board, with strangers who snore, drool, smell, drink wee too much, and so on...

I have realised that no matter where I run to, my problem reaches the destination paradise before I get there.


Yes, it is true, the fastest traveler is "thought".

These days, I fly with my thoughts.

Enjoy enjoy!

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Thank you for this interesting blog. I agree. Travel helps to throw so many of my preconceived notions of how things 'should' work. This is what I find so stimulating about the entire experience; that is, that I must really think my way through each day.
There is nothing rote. Ther is no routine, no known factors...instead, each moment is something to navigate and that helps me to come home and see things from a perspective that has been just slightly skewed as a result. It's like changing your furniture around or moving the pictures on the wall...it helps us to really see what has otherwise just become background wallpaper.
This is topic is covered rather brilliantly in The Brain That Changes Itself by Dr. Doidge. A worth-while read.
Thanks again.

"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."

Brilliant! After I read this, I felt like screaming "YES! YES!" while jumping up on the couch in a crazy Tom-Cruise-on-Today-Show style.

The grass isn't necessarily greener on the other side, it's just...different.

Beautifully written! Travel is an essential component of life, of someone's growth. We underestimate creativity and almost suppress it because we get lost in the realities of life- paying bills, working, raising children, working, and working more. Many forget to dream anymore and become complacent. The same road traveled too many times also becomes a bore and does not arouse our senses. Travel sparks us and forces us to move, to think, to act, to experience something new. In the end, it is about understanding ourselves better and in turn, other people as well, so ultimately, we become better communicators with one another in this so-called life. Thanks, Jonah!

I'm surprised you didn't throw Proust's analysis of the relationship between travel and habit in there somewhere. This is one of my favorite comments on the benefits of travel-a reflection as the narrator takes his first train trip to Balbec (I believe):
"As a rule it is with our being reduced to a minimum that we live; most of our facilities lie dormant because they can rely upon Habit, which knows what there is to be done and has no need of their services. But...the interruption of the routine of my existence, the unfamiliar place and time, had made their presence indispensable. My habits, which were sedentary and not matutinal, for once were missing, and all my faculties came hurrying to take their place, vying with one another in their zeal, rising, each of them, like waves, to the same unaccustomed level, from the basest to the most exulted, from breath, appetite, the circulation of my blood to receptivity and imagination."

By Matthew Pena (not verified) on 04 Mar 2010 #permalink

Heritage Pakistan, being a nationâs or rather a populationâs inheritance is very sacred. It depicts that particular raceâs progress, development, and intuition towards the future.

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Travel is like a drug, and in many ways has the same effect. Trips composed of moments where your entire body is taken by a storm of adrenaline; mind racing, blood raging, even the patch of skin on the end of your pinkie finger feels alive - there is perhaps no better drug.

No matter how far you travel, no matter how many times, the one thing about travel, the one magical thing is that you never know what you will get. Jet setting in something you cannot practice nor perfect.

What will you do when you find yourself lost in a small Austrian town, backpack strapped on, tired and exhausted and no idea how to get to the next port of call. Consider your reaction when your long haul bus gets pulled over at 2:30 am along the coast of South Africa, and gun yielding men haul everyone off the bus whilst screaming in Afrikans.

Mr. Lehrer, you have captured the cognitive aspect of travel with the melody of a conductors baton, but just beyond your words there lurks something more fierce; the visceral effect of travel, the uncharted, unpredictable adventure of it all, and the adrenaline that drives it.

By sailing the (c… (not verified) on 01 Jun 2010 #permalink

god, you're really dense, i bet you jack off to your own articles. travel is not a basic human desire and there are entire lines of "logic" that don't fit into places like "reality", but you travel a lot so im sure you knew that.

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Over time, and after trekking/flying through a few continents, enduring long hours on board, with strangers who snore, drool, smell, drink wee too much, and so on.I have realised that no matter where I run to, my problem reaches the destination paradise before I get there.

No matter I still love airports but of course only those where i can lounge, rest and relax. Airports oriented towards business travelers are the best. Especially sitting at the observation deck and watching planes landing and airlifting..Interesting times...

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I think in a past life I was a gypsy or nomad. How can anyone stay in one spot for too long. I travel because I never find peace in one location for too long.

Great read. Sorry for the off topic rant but your title made me think of all my travels. :)

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Incidentally, I dont think Marthas a pathological liar, I think shes a combination of disinterested and misinformed. Maybe shes qualified to be a volunteer at a local hospital.