Why Our Minds and Bodies Crave Travel—and How That Will Bring Back the Industry

Why Our Minds and Bodies Crave Travel—and How That Will Bring Back the Industry


– By Jeannette Cooperman, Ph.D., writer & Mike Konzen, CEO


If you’re part of the travel and tourism industry, you’ve been reeling these past two months. What if people just shelter at home, more or less, for the rest of their lives? What if they’re too frightened to ever venture to an unfamiliar place, meet its people, thrill to its sights, try its cuisine?

Not likely.

Travel will need to be reinvented in practical ways, many of which will require an initial stretch. But this industry is not just “too big to die” in world economic terms. It’s also too deeply rooted in our psyche.

We humans are a restless species, and nothing in the history of civilization—not war, highway robbery, famine, not even plague—has ever stopped us from traveling for any length of time. Why is the practice so indispensable? Instinctively drawn to explore, we realized early on that travel changed us, and for the better. Many of the great epics—the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—span journeys. Many world religions involve pilgrimage. One of this nation’s founding fathers, Benjamin Rush, urged his 21-year-old son to travel and keep a diary of “the population, manners, climate,” he observed. By the 19th century, young Americans were sent on the Grand Tour to have their rough manners polished in Europe, their minds opened and educated in a way no prep school could manage.

Now scientists have learned enough to understand why travel is transformative; why our brains crave the stimulus and our bodies crave the release.

Travel sparks us back to life with surprise, challenge, distance, and diversion. In 1642, James Howell listed “delightful ideas, and a thousand various thoughts” as benefits of “Forreine Travell”—but as those of you in the industry know, far more is at play. First, a trip frees the mind from dulling routine and sharp worry. Second, it throws newness at us: new kinds of people with new food, music, art, landscape, wildlife, customs, rituals, stories, values, beliefs. Third, something invariably goes awry or needs negotiating, and when those challenges demand our attention, they literally cause our brains to grow, lengthening the dendrites (the dangly bits that reach out toward other nerve cells) to make it easier for messages to, well, travel.

Neuroscientist Paul Nussbaum says that while any challenge can trigger such growth, “travel by definition is dropping your brain into a place that’s novel and complex,” which is the perfect stimulus. “You’re stunned a little bit, and your brain reacts by being engaged, and you begin to process on a deep level.” Connections strengthen. Focus sharpens. Memory improves.

The neat trick is that while travel stimulates the brain, it also rests the brain. Strolling along a wharf or through a forest of ancient sequoias, we pay attention in a softer, more diffuse way, our senses alive and alert but not focused down. It’s the kind of receptive alertness that allows the mind to wander at will—and new ideas to pop. As Maria Popova, the editor of Brainpickings.com, points out, “the most significant human achievements between Aristotle’s time and our own — our greatest art, the most enduring ideas of philosophy, the spark for every technological breakthrough — originated in leisure.” Unburdened, and with the perspective of distance, people could pay attention to the world in a new way. Galileo stood reverent in a cathedral watching a pendulum swing–and invented modern timekeeping. Dr. Seuss found the rhythm for his breakthrough children’s story by listening to the rhythm of the ship’s engines on an ocean voyage.

And now? Never before have we so needed authentic physical experiences of the world. Screens are a godsend during a pandemic, but they have dulled our senses—as has the food we cobbled together with infrequent trips to the grocery store and panicked substitutions. After weeks inside the same four walls, we need to move through space, taste and smell and hear something new—and as we do, our confidence will return. Not false confidence—we will still need to avoid contagion, and there will be creative new ways to do that. But confidence in the future—that feeling otherwise known as hope.

Humans long to be surprised now and again, to smash routine, to see the world fresh. Travel is a painless (except for the skilled interpreters and curators) curriculum in history, geography, sociology, cultural anthropology, and the arts. Research published last August in Leisure Studies showed that family travel even heightened teenagers’ enjoyment of school.

After weeks of stress and sickness, the healing side of travel will also be crucial. People with tuberculosis used to “take the cure” in thin mountain air, and doctors often sent malingering patients to the seashore. Healthy travel can recharge the energy, strengthen the body, deepen restful sleep. Stress melts away, and when cortisol and other stress hormones are not flooding our systems, we breathe in more oxygen, our heartbeat slows, our blood pressure lowers.

Women who vacation twice a year are at less risk of heart attack or coronary death—and men who do not take an annual vacation have a 32 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease than men who do. Even short trips can calm us. Researchers in Japan took saliva samples from women who weekended on Kyushu Island found a marked reduction in stress after just three days. And in the famous five-decade Helsinki Businessmen Study, even men who improved their lifestyles in other ways suffered if they shortchanged their vacations.

Psychologically, travel allows a little experimental reinvention of the self. When you see yourself through strangers’ eyes, you spot different aspects of yourself, different possibilities, different ways of being in the world. You also see other people differently: One study noted that trips abroad make people more open to new experiences and, frankly, less neurotic. Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School, found that “foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth… of thought.” For maximum creative boost, though, you have to engage with the local culture, not hunt for familiar chain restaurants. It is the ability to cross cultures that makes us feel more socially agile. With the surprise of empathy for people so different from yourself, perspective expands like an accordion. No longer is the “other” such a threat.

Time expands, too. The more new experiences we pack into a day, the faster our brain processes the information—and the slower time seems to pass. Days are richer, filled with new memories, and we are not going on auto-pilot for long stretches, letting our day unspool without paying attention to it.

The Millennials are right: Spending money on vacation travel and the sort of experiences it brings makes you far happier than buying stuff—and the happiness lasts far longer. Travel is one of the rare things in life that is seriously good for us and delightful. But no one can do it all by themselves. Unless we like sleeping rough and crave nonstop risk, we need safe transportation, a serene and blissfully comfortable place to sleep, delicious food and drink, and a hot shower and soft, clean towels, so our bodies can drop their hypervigilance, savor the moment, and gather energy to explore again the next day. Hospitality is what puts us at ease in a new place. Only with that network of support can we relax into novelty; let ourselves be amused and delighted; free our minds to expand.

The only bright spot in a global pandemic is that it hits a reset button, giving entire societies a chance to rethink the way they work and interact. But travel has always been our individual reset button. With the recent spate of cancellations and closures, the economic, psychological, and physical necessity of travel was made obvious. Already, the desire to travel is returning—because we now know it restores us to our calmest, smartest, happiest, and healthiest selves.

We need it more than ever.

For the latest industry research and recovery solutions from PGAV Destinations, visit https://pgavdestinations.com/quarterly-publications/destinations-dispatch/

Next: “The Heart and Soul of Travel”

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