We travel, then, in search of both self and anonymity–and, of course, in finding the one we apprehend the other. Abroad, we are wonderfully free of caste and job and standing; we are, as Hazlitt puts it, just the “gentlemen in the parlour,” and people cannot put a name or tag to us. And precisely because we are clarified in this way, and freed of inessential labels, we have the opportunity to come into contact with more essential parts of ourselves (which may begin to explain why we may feel most alive when far from home).
Abroad is the place where we stay up late, follow impulse and find ourselves as wide open as when we are in love. We live without a past or future, for a moment at least, and are ourselves up for grabs and open to interpretation. We even may become mysterious–to others, at first, and sometimes to ourselves–and, as no less a dignitary than Oliver Cromwell once noted, “A man never goes so far as when he doesn’t know where he is going.”
Pico Iyer’s complete essay.
Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, on the mental exercise involved in travel:
According to the researchers, 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 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 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.
…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 been changed, and that changes everything.
Burkhard Bilger writes of David Eagleman’s work on perceiving time:
One of the seats of emotion and memory in the brain is the amygdala. When something threatens your life, this area seems to kick into overdrive, recording every last detail of the experience. The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. “This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,” Eagleman said–why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.
“Time is this rubbery thing,” Eagleman said. “It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.” The best example of this is the so-called oddball effect—an optical illusion that Eagleman had shown me in his lab. It consisted of a series of simple images flashing on a computer screen. Most of the time, the same picture was repeated again and again: a plain brown shoe. But every so often a flower would appear instead. To my mind, the change was a matter of timing as well as of content: the flower would stay onscreen much longer than the shoe. But Eagleman insisted that all the pictures appeared for the same length of time. The only difference was the degree of attention that I paid to them. The shoe, by its third or fourth appearance, barely made an impression. The flower, more rare, lingered and blossomed, like those childhood summers.
David Wolman offers the application:
Travel keeps things unfamiliar. Keep exploring unfamiliar terrain and seeking novel experiences, and your brain will write down more information… Perhaps it even creates the impression that time isn’t passing us by quite so damn fast.
Originally posted on my previous blog, exactly two years ago today. It was a hot and humid day in Hangzhou, China, and I spent it wondering what it was about travel that I loved so much.