Monday, January 18, 2010

Why (I) Travel

Jonah Lehrer writes about the effect of travel on the mind in an article called Why We Travel:
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.
I have that exact feeling when I return home from a trip. Other days, home is just home. But when you walk in the door from after being away, you see it in a different way. I've noted that feeling after every trip I've taken, ever since I was very young. Being somewhere different- it doesn't matter whether it's across the world or a couple of hours from home- puts you in a different frame of mind.
...our thoughts are shackled by the familiar. 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.
Of course, it's not enough to simply get on a plane: if we want to experience the creative benefits of travel, then we have to re-think its raison d'ètre. Most people, after all, escape to Paris so they don't have to think about those troubles they left behind. But here's the ironic twist: our mind is most likely to solve our stubbornest problems while sitting in a swank Left Bank café. So instead of contemplating that buttery croissant, we should be mulling over those domestic riddles we just can't solve.
It's easy to fall into the same patterns of thinking day after day as you as you wake up in the same place and do the same things each day. You can be most effective when you are in a familiar and comfortable environment each day, but creativity and innovation, the things that help you find new ways to tackle the same problems, will fade away unless you find ways to infuse some different-ness into your everyday routine.

In the article Lehrer argues that it is the distance and unfamiliar environment that help you solve these problems and that you should be focused on those problems in order to find a solution while away. I disagree- I believe that a big part of the reason that you can come up with new solutions to old problems while away is because you aren't tackling these problems head-on the way you are at home. When you're away from home, you shouldn't be focused intently on what you are trying to figure out. So long as you aren't crushed by the newness and stress of being somewhere different, the ability to have a clear head and only worry be worried about what's there in front of you will let your mind wander and you'll be able to think about these issues from more of a sideways perspective. I find the same thing even when I am at home- when you put your work aside and let your mind wander, you end up coming back to the same issues, but you aren't thinking about them in the same way, arriving at the same conclusion all the time because of patterned thinking- you can look at them from afar and see things in a different way.

There's an optimal combination of consistency dotted with sudden differentness that is different for each person. I feel that humans are dramatically affected by their environment, and I will post more on this in the future.

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