Does travel change a person? Science says “yes”

Written by on February 14, 2012 in Guest Posts - 7 Comments

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Nancy Sathre-Vogel. If you are a writer and interested in providing a guest post, please  contact me

Does our brain change when we travel?

I’ve read a lot of blog posts throughout the blogosphere about how travel changes people. People talk about becoming more comfortable in their skin, about an increase in confidence, and more knowledge of the world. There is no doubt – travel does change people. Quite literally.

I doubt most of us realize just how fundamentally we’re changed by the travel experience, but our brains react to our experiences at the cellular level. In other words, your brain structure literally changes in response to your experiences.

Each one of us is born with all the brain cells we’ll ever have – somewhere around 100 billion of them.  That’s a one with eleven zeros behind it.  In other words – that’s a lot of brain cells.

Those cells are pretty much worthless unless they are connected together, and that’s the job of the dendrites. Dendrites grow in response to challenge and stimulation.

The most crucial job your brain has to do is communicate within itself. Its cells need to “talk” to each other. That’s what the dendritic network does – it sends messages between brain cells.

Let’s take an example. You’ve played video games before right? Remember how hard it was when you first started? How you had to study each and every aspect of the screen and reason it all out to figure out who was going to be where and what the consequences of being there were? It was hard. It was frustrating. It was challenging and stimulating.

Fast forward a few months and you’ve now mastered the game. Now you sit at your computer and play the game effortlessly. It’s like you’re on autopilot and your fingers somehow know what reaction they need to make in response to what’s happening on the screen.

In those months, your brain created a network of connections between your brain cells to facilitate your efforts. Instead of the message needing to scramble from one part of your brain to the other, your body created a network to take the messages directly where they need to be.

Fast forward another couple of months. By now, you’ve mastered the old game and have moved on to another. This time, however, the learning curve isn’t quite so steep and you master the game a bit easier. Blame all the work you did on the first game for that.

What’s happened is that your brain has done the hard work of creating the network. Now, you can call that into play. In effect, you can hijack the dendrites that were grown for the other game, and utilize them to facilitate learning the new game. In essence, you had a “hook” to hang the new information on, so it slotted into your existing framework more easily.

That’s exactly what’s happening when you travel.

The brain is changing ...

The first time you visit a ruin site, you’ll most likely be overwhelmed. So many new pieces of information bombard you – sights, sounds, smells. History, architecture, and lifestyle. You’ll pick up a bit of the information; your brain will grow a few dendrites to process what you’ve learned.

Now you visit another ruin site from perhaps a different civilization entirely. You’ve got the “ruin network” started in your brain, so you’ll slot whatever new information you can into the existing framework. With whatever doesn’t fit, your brain will grow new dendrites to make sense of it.

The extensive dendritic network is hard at work here.

Over time, and hundreds of ruin sites, you will have created an extensive dendritic network in your brain. You’ve got all those seemingly random bits and pieces of information neatly organized within your brain and you “know” it. The information is readily retrievable and can be applied to anything.

Is this all to say that travel is essential to create an extensive dendritic network within your brain? No. As long as you are in a challenging, stimulating environment, your brain will be working to make sense of your surroundings. You’ll be growing dendrites and slotting information into what you already know.

But while traveling, you’re automatically in challenging, stimulating environments rather than having to seek them out at home. So really, heading out to travel may possibly be the easiest way to learn everything. Even “school” stuff.

About the Author: Nancy Sathre-Vogel is chief blogger at Family on Bikes. Together with her family, she spent three years cycling from Alaska to Argentina. Now, she back at home writing books and blog posts about their adventures.

 

About the Author

Diana Edelman is a travel writer and expat currently residing in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She is a former career breaker and long term solo traveler. Today, she helps promote responsible elephant tourism and is the co-founder of #RTTC, a weekly chat on Twitter focusing on responsible tourism. When she isn’t writing, Diana handles the PR and social media for Save Elephant Foundation, which runs the popular Elephant Nature Park. Her writing as appeared in About.com, Thought Catalog, The Huffington Post, Matador Network, Travel + Escape, Luna Luna, Vegas Seven, World Nomads, Viator, CheapOair, OneTravel and more.

7 Comments on " Does travel change a person? Science says “yes” "

  1. Jenn @therebelchick February 14, 2012 at 2:26 pm · Reply

    Wow, that was pretty fascinating! I’ve never thought of the science behind learning new things while traveling, but now I have one more reason to do it more often!

    • Diana February 14, 2012 at 4:39 pm · Reply

      Isn’t it so cool?!? I had no idea!

  2. Iván February 14, 2012 at 3:23 pm · Reply

    Great post, I think sometimes when we travelling is easy to be living so many experiences that is impossible to feel when you stay at home living a routine. But probably is part of the game and we can apreciate better all the experiences with these two sides of experiences, differences are great for understand many things about our travelling experiences and our new travel dreams ;)

    • Diana February 14, 2012 at 4:35 pm · Reply

      So true!!

  3. Andi of My Beautiful Adventures February 19, 2012 at 3:37 pm · Reply

    Such an interesting post, my answer is YES!

    • Diana February 19, 2012 at 10:45 pm · Reply

      Me, too!!

  4. Meredith@GreenGlobalTravel October 7, 2013 at 12:32 pm · Reply

    What an interesting approach. I have never really thought about that way my brain learns things about my travel experiences and applies them to my next one. Thanks for informing me!

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