Dr. Marian Diamond, who famously studied the brain of Albert Einstein, proved that if the brain was in an enriched environment, it could grow and renew its connections. One way humans can access an enriched environment? Travel.
Narrator: How can travel strengthen the human brain? It’s child’s play. By the age of three a child’s brain has twice as many synapses per neuron than an adult’s. That’s because as humans age the brain removes unused connections to make stronger ones, but doing new activities and having new experiences can help enhance those connections at any age. This is your brain on travel.
Chapter 1. The Brain: A 2009 study gave participants a unique creativity puzzle to solve involving a candle, a box of tacks and matches. The goal was to affix a lit candle to a cork board with nothing but those items. One key to solving it? Well, travel and living abroad. Most of the participants who had traveled and lived abroad demonstrated a measurable increase in creativity. Dr. Shelly Carson, an expert on creativity in the brain, explains the phenomenon.
Dr. Shelly Carson: One of the reasons for this obviously, is that living in another culture exposes you to new ideas, to new people, to new stimuli, and that increases the amount of elements or bits of information that you can combine or recombine in novel and original ways to come up with new ideas.
Narrator: This is Dr. Bo Lotto. He’s a neuroscientist and an expert in perception. He shares the same sentiment of experiencing new stimuli.
Dr. Bo Lotto: And so that’s why you want to complexify your brain and the way you complexify it is by enriching your environment.
Chapter 2: The Body: Scientists used to believe that the brain was unchangeable and only degraded with age. It wasn’t until the 1960s that neuroscientist, Dr. Marian Diamond, proved the complete opposite. She found that if the body was in an enriched environment, the brain could be shaped by that environment and grow. She did this by placing some lab rats in a multi-sensory environment and others in a bare environment. The rats that had spent more time in the enriched environment had more synaptic connections.
Carson: So an enriched environment allows you to develop more pathways so that they’ll be there and available for you and they won’t be as you grow older.
Chapter 3: The Mind: By accessing these environments and travel, the mind can enter a complex emotional state known as awe.
Lotto: Awe is one of the most powerful perceptions we have and awe gives you the excitement and the ability to step to the very place we evolved to avoid which is not knowing. So it gives you the curiosity and the courage to step forward.
Narrator: To study that, Dr. Lotto equipped hundreds of people with EEG caps while they watched a circus performance, something people don’t see every day.
Lotto: You want to be changeable, adaptable, and that’s what traveling with openness and courage can enable you to do. So for instance, order foods that you’ve never had before and partly because you don’t even know what it means on the menu. Get your hair cut. The barber is one of the central focuses of the community. Truly engage and be part of the environment.
Chapter 4: Lasting Impact: Awe and other benefits of travel can last past the duration of the trip. One study followed up with participants five weeks after their trip and they still reported less stress and headaches.
Carson: Engaging the reward center of the brain when you’re traveling helps to counteract cortisol and some of the stress hormones that get released when you’re in your everyday grind, and so this is a way that at the biological level, traveling can reduce stress.
Narrator: Even just booking a trip and anticipating the experience of traveling can increase contentment. Ninety-seven percent of people in a study even reported that having a trip planned made them happier. So whether your travels take you across the country or across the globe, embrace the unknown. It may just transform your brain for the better.
- Do you like to travel?
- Have you ever really thought about why traveling is so stimulating?
- Can you think of any other activities that engage your mind in a manner similar to travel, perhaps without even leaving your home?