How Travel Changes the Brain

“Ever travel to a foreign city? We’ve all heard that “travel broadens the mind”. But beneath this cliche lies a deep truth. Things stand out because they’re different, so we notice every detail, from street signs to mailboxes to how you pay at a restaurant. We learn a lot when we travel not because we are any smarter on the road, but because we pay such close attention…we are continuously trying to figure out a world that is foreign and new.” — Tom & David Kelley

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Banff, Canada.

It’s the moment you’ve been looking forward to all year — your yearly trip. Maybe it’s laying on the beach in Cabo, doing a food tour in Sicily, or taking a road trip to a new city (especially since the borders have been closed). When you travel you start to really take notice of the things around you. You realize that people are dressed differently than what you are used to, you have to translate the menu from one language to another and you are paying close attention to the scenery. How does travel encourage positive changes in the brain?

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize, remember, and adapt connections and learned information based on what is relevant to your life. This is the idea that the brain is plastic and constantly changing to fit your environmental demands, making tasks you perform frequently easy to access (Snodgrass, 2014). Neuroplasticity also deals with the principle of “use it or lose it”, where if you don’t perform a task as often as you used to (such as the French you haven’t practiced since high school), the brain will reorganize itself and the neurons will not connect as easily as they used to. Although, once you practice old skills the neuronal connections will strengthen.

The change of an environment is something novel and complex for the brain, which encourages neuroplasticity. Various areas of the brain are activated when completing various activities. It is never solely one brain region responsible for all the work — different regions of the brain compensate and collaborate when experiencing and completing activities. There are various areas of the brain that are stimulated by travel. For example, the hippocampus is stimulated when learning and remembering a fact that you learned from a trip to a museum. When hiking or exploring a new region the basal ganglia and motor cortex are stimulated, as those brain regions are responsible for balance and coordinated movements. Adapting to a new environment targets the frontal lobe, responsible for problem-solving skills, judgment, and spontaneity. When hearing, understanding, and speaking a different language, Wernicke’s and Broca’s area is activated. The Parietal lobe is targetted when wandering and navigating a new neighborhood. The olfactory cortex is responsible for perceiving and processing the smells of spices in a local market, and the gustatory cortex does the same for tasting new foods.

While travel encourages neuroplasticity, you don’t need to go abroad to reap the benefits. Exploring your own hometown with an open and inquisitive mind is the way to do it. Our brain regions are activated constantly when performing different activities, although novelty is important. Participating in new activities and learning new things is powerful for neuroplasticity, and our intention and dedication towards learning and exploring heightens during travel.

Sources:

Snodgrass, S. J., Heneghan, N. R., Tsao, H., Stanwell, P. T., Rivett, D. A., & Van Vliet, P. M. (2014). Recognizing neuroplasticity in musculoskeletal rehabilitation: a basis for greater collaboration between musculoskeletal and neurological physiotherapists. Manual therapy, 19(6), 614

Author of “Q & A a Day for Travelers”. https://www.linkedin.com/in/anna-frenkel/

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