Why We Travel?

14 Apr

It has long been said that travel “broadens the mind”. Now new evidence proves that jumping on a plane will not only make you smarter, but more open-minded and creative.


   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. I let out a sleepy groan: I’m going to the airport.

The taxi is outside, and then here I am hurtling into the harsh incandescence of South Terminal of Gatwick Airport, running with my suitcase so I can wait in a long security line. And then, after 4 hours stuck in the terminal with a cup of caffeine and Veggie sandwich, the plane took off to Milan, Italy. And then, 2 hours later, I was there.

So why do we travel, dear readers, when we have already passed that pre-modern age of the mind awed by the physics that gets a fat metal bird into the upper troposphere. Well, sometimes we travel because we have to. In this digital age, there’s still something important about face-to-face communication or analogue handshake, or eating your Grandma’s cake on Christmas.

In most cases, however, we travel because we want to. We travel in order to get away from the stressful pressure of work, from the home boredom, etc. We travel because flights are on sale, because Venice is Venice.

But here is my question: Is this desire to travel – to put some distance between ourselves and everythign we know -caused  only by the desire to experience new types of pleasure, to have fun ?


Because if travel is just about having fun, then the new security measures at the airports have killed it.

THE GOOD NEWS  is that pleasure is not only the reason for travelling. New science papers report that getting away – and it doesn’t even matter where you’re going – is an essential habit of effective thinking. It’s not about a holiday, or relaxation: it’s about the act of travelling itself, putting some miles between home and wherever you happen to spend the night.

        In its literal apsect, travelling is a verb of movement. Thanks to modern technology, now we are able to move from place to place at an inhuman speed. For the first time in human history, we can outrun the sun and change climates only in few hours.
The reason such travels are menally useful is that while being away from our ‘natural habitat’, our thoughts are less constricted; they allow us to release our imagination from the limited set of associations which bounds it while being at home. Consider a field of roses for example. When you are standing in the middle of the field, surrounded by roses with spiraling centers and vivid, rich colors, the air smelling faintly, your mind is auctomatically drawn to thoughts that revolve around the primary meaning of rose, which is that it’s a plant, a flower, a symbol of romance and passion.

But now imagine the same field of roses from a different perspective. Instead of standing on a field, you are now in the midst of a crowded city street, dense with taxis and pedestrians, and yet for some reason you are still thinking about roses. The rose will no longer be a rose itself; instead, your vast neutral network will pump out all sorts of associations. You’ll think about rose marmalade, jam or tea.

What does this have to do with travel?Being far away from the place we spend most of our time, makes our mind aware of all those awkard ideas we had suppressed. . As a neural tangle of near-infinite possibility, the brain 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.

As TS Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets:

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.”


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