Traveling doesn’t just feel great—it’s scientifically proven to enhance the neuroplasticity in your brain. If you’re looking for an excuse to get out of town (as if staying cooped up in your house for a year wasn’t enough) here’s an extra poke. What does your brain look like on travel? Read on to learn the six health benefits of traveling, and why your adventures can actually make you healthier.
This Is Your Brain…. on Travel
You don’t have to be a kid of the ’80s to get this reference. While the famous anti-narcotics TV campaign convinced you that your brain turns into a fried egg on drugs, what happens to your brain “on travel”? Spoiler alert: Great, healthy, life-changing things. In other words, the ‘good egg’. Instead of getting fried, your brain gets seasoned with salt, pepper, and a little paprika.
6 Health Benefits of Traveling
1. Enhances Cognitive Performance
Before 1964, neuroscientists believed that brain health and performance were entirely genetic. You’re either born with a great brain, or you’re not. Thanks to the collaborative effort of various neuroscientists, the theory of neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to learn and grow over time—was born.
The good news is, today, if you want a better brain, you can get one.
One way to do so, according to neuroscientist Dr. Marian Diamond, is by enhancing your environment. In one study, Dr. Diamond tested the cerebral cortex of rats raised in differing environments. The cerebral cortex is the biggest section of the brain, responsible for information processing and functions such as perception, association, thought, voluntary movement, and sensation. She found that the rats raised in “enriched” environments with toys and other rats to play with had thicker cerebral cortexes than those raised in “impoverished” environments.
So, how do adults enrich their environments? Travel.
When you travel, your brain is introduced to novelty—new and enriching experiences—which ignite cognitive networks and make your brain dynamic and healthy.
2. Creates Dendrites in the Brain
Science lesson: Dendrites are bridge-like extensions that grow from brain neurons and transmit information from one part of the brain to another. The more dendrites you have, the stronger and more capable your brain will be. According to neuroscientist Paul Nussbaum, there is a link between dendrite growth and new experiences, or travel.
When you travel, your daily routine goes by the wayside. This change forces your brain to process new information, which leads to dendrite production. But here’s the best part: even when traveling doesn’t go your way—you miss your train, you lose your wallet, you get lost—you still generate dendrites. In fact, these moments of inconvenience are often the moments that generate the most dendrites. That means that no, getting lost in a new city is not a waste of time. It’s actually improving your cognitive functions such as attention, memory, and problem-solving.
3. Boosts Creativity
When it comes to creativity, it can feel like some people are born creative, and others aren’t. According to neuroscience, this isn’t the case! Like the rest of your brain functions, creativity can be enhanced by trying new things. Creativity is simply the ability to create or connect things in unique and unexpected ways. Throwing yourself in new situations helps your brain practice coming up with creative solutions to new situations and problems, in turn, boosting your creative capabilities. This is done best when you travel to places that challenge you; think foreign countries where you need to learn new words and customs. Hola, Hei, Salut!
In a 2014 study by the Academy of Management Journal, the connection between travel and creativity was studied in top fashion houses. The study found that the creative directors of fashion houses who traveled more had more creative designs. Due to these findings, the researchers theorized that traveling, and even more so, living and working in a foreign country, forces you to think differently and create “cognitive flexibility,” which leads to higher levels of creativity.
4. Strengthens Personality
Just like with creativity, it can appear that personality is a fixed trait assigned at birth. But neuroscience shows how traveling and trying new things can strengthen and change your personality. According to Psychology professor Dr. David Hambrick, when people are more open to experience, they are more likely to be imaginative, independent, and intellectually curious. Traveling teaches your brain to cherish variety over routine, and to be open to whatever experiences and opportunities come your way.
In one 2013 psychology study, researchers observed two groups of German college students—one that studied abroad for a semester and one that stayed in Germany. The researchers found that when the group that studied abroad returned home, they showed increases in agreeableness, emotional stability, and openness when compared to the control group. These personality changes, the researchers determined, were due to the impacts of traveling, expanding their social network, and meeting different kinds of people. Relationships help shape you, and your personality, and the more people you meet, the more likely you are to develop a unique set of personality traits.
5. Improves Wellness
It’s no secret that travel can improve your stress levels, but can it make you happier overall? Neuroscience says, most likely, yes. Travel can improve your levels of happiness, wellness, and lower your risk of depression. In one study, 1,500 Wisconsin women were monitored for five years to test the impact of taking vacations on their mental health. The researchers discovered that the women who took more vacations (two per year) were significantly less likely to develop depression, fatigue, or irritability than the women who took fewer vacations (one every two years).
The same result was found in another study that compared the well-being of people who had planned vacations and those who had no vacations planned. The researchers discovered that those who had vacation plans to look forward to were significantly happier than those who did not.
6. Reduces the Risk of Age-Related Cognitive Decline
In case it’s not clear yet, it is never too late to work on improving your brain function. The brain continues to grow, change, and improve throughout life, even into old age. A white paper published in 2018 by the Global Coalition on Aging states that “travel involves new experiences, which also increases cognitive stimulation… [and that] social or leisure activities, including travel, is associated with a lower risk of subsequent dementia.” According to additional research, one way to lower your risk of developing age-related cognitive decline is to regularly engage in social and leisure activities, travel included. Neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich explains how those who continue to travel to new places throughout old age are less likely to develop cognitive decay than those who do not. This goes the same for continuing to learn new languages and experience new things (even if it’s just a little bit).
When You Travel, Where Will You Go?
We’ve all got a laundry list of reasons to leave the house and experience an adventure, where will you go? Take our Find Your Next Adventure Quiz to find out! And in case you need a little refresh, travel can: improve your cognitive performance, create more dendrites in your brain, boost your creativity, strengthen your personality, improve your wellness, and possibly prevent mental decay later in life. Now, next year, later… These benefits don’t have an expiration date.