With air travel becoming even more of a headache and hassle — not to mention a hit to the pocketbook — those of us who do a lot of traveling for so-called pleasure find ourselves wondering more and more often (as we sit stuck on the tarmac or race to catch our flight after a security delay) why we even bother.
Yet travel we do — and mostly (70 percent of the time, according to 2008 statistics), because we want to, not because we have to (for work).
In an article published in McSweeney’s recent one-off broadsheet publication, The San Francisco Panorama, science writer Jonah Lehrer (“How We Decide” and “Proust Was a Neuroscientist”) ponders the question “Why do we travel?” from a neurological perspective.
(The San Francisco Panorama quickly sold out its first run. [Note to self: This year, get a subscription to McSweeney’s.] Lehrer, however, has posted his article in full on his blog, the Frontal Cortex.)
Specifically, asks Lehrer, given all the “annoyances of the airport … 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 [Transportation Security Administration] killed it.”
Lehrer turns to recent research for possible answers. “[P]leasure is not the only consolation of travel,” he writes. “In fact, several new science papers suggest that getting away — and it 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’s about the tedious act itself, putting some miles between home and where you happen to spend the night.”
Travel helps make our thinking broader, more flexible, more capable of solving complex problems, as psychologist Lile Jia and his colleagues at Indiana University found in a recent experiment. Writes Lehrer:
[Jia] randomly divided a few dozen undergrads 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 getting around all over the world, and even in deep space.
“Our thoughts are shackled by the familiar,” writes Lehrer. “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 something new in the old; the mundane is grasped from a slightly more abstract perspective.”
Unshackling fixed thinking
Studies have shown that travel also helps us overcome the bias of “functional fixedness” — our inability to see new functions for old objects (that an oven could be used as a small closet, for example).
In one study, Lehrer reports, “students who had lived abroad were 20 percent more likely to solve a computer simulation of a classic psychological task known as the Duncker candle problem [which requires letting go of functional fixedness] than students who had never lived outside of their birth country.” Adds Lehrer:
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. 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 American 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.
A secret mental tonic
So, why do we continue to travel, despite all the hassles of canceled flights, lost luggage, and long and increasingly intrusive security lines?
“We travel because we need to,” concludes Lehrer, “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.”