“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 changed,
and that changes everything.”
~ JONAH LEHRER, Frontal Cortex: Why We Travel
A bird is haplessly pecking at the same patch of barren ground looking for worms, oblivious to a family of worms a few feet away. Another bird is sitting in a tree, able to see all the worms available to him (as well as the futility of the other bird’s efforts.) This is a common metaphor used to describe the difference between the every day mind and the meditative mind. Awareness.
According to neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer, this also describes us before and after travel. When done well, travel can expand our awareness in a way similar to meditation. Just how dramatically our awareness changes boils down to the amount of distance and difference our journey is from our day-to-day lives.
“There is something intellectually liberating about distance,” writes Lehrer. “It’s not about vacation, or relaxation, or sipping daiquiris on an unspoiled tropical beach: it’s about putting some miles between you and home.” ~ Jonah Lehrer
According to recent studies conducted at Indiana University, when problems seem “close” — whether in distance, time, or familiarity — our mind’s problem-solving capacities shrink. On the other hand, if we can “get some distance,” our mind automatically become more expansive and imaginative in its solutions.
Even more important than distance, is difference. Turns out, it’s not enough to hole up in various Sheratons around the world. “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.”
“If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest — in all its ardour and paradoxes — than our travels. " ~ Alain de Botton
When we travel the contrast between our new encounters and our lives at home opens our minds to ambiguity and the possibility of multiple viable perspectives on a single issue. Decisions previously beyond consideration start appearing more plausible. Author Alain Botton writes in the Art of Travel, “ If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest — in all its ardour and paradoxes — than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside of the constraints of work and of the struggle for survival.” Or, as the great T.S. Elliott is famous for writing
"We shall not cease from exploration, and the
end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time." ~ T.S. Elliott