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What Traveling Actually Does To Your Brain

Posted by Abbey Krzymowski on 2/27/20 1:48 PM

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Have you ever spent time abroad and then woke up one morning and realized you felt...different? Or maybe you noticed a handful of subtle changes over a longer period of time? Well, here's what scientists are saying about how traveling abroad can actually change your brain.

If you've ever spent a semester living in another country and culture, seeing new places, eating new foods, and loving new people, then you've probably noticed a few changes about yourself. Are you more confident at navigating airports? Or more comfortable communicating with locals who don't speak the same language you do?  More eager to develop friendships with strangers? More willing to try new things? Or have you finally figured out what career path you want to pursue? Volunteers with International Language Programs often describe such changes after completing their own semesters abroad. 


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While such changes are pretty familiar to travelers, we're excited that scientists are addressing what travel actually does to our brains to make these changes occur. It's fascinating stuff! Especially if you've noticed such adjustments in your own personality. Since this is something that so many of our volunteers can relate to, we wanted to share some of the most interesting info with you based on four common questions many of us have. 

Disclaimer: Although we love learning about information like this, we definitely aren't neuroscientists or psychologists and can't add much to this discussion, except what we've learned from our own experiences abroad. All of the scholarly information is pulled from articles that we have linked at the bottom of this post. 

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How Can Travel Affect My Personality?

Many researchers agree that it does! Colombia Business School's Adam Galinsky, a psychologist and Ted Talk speaker, says that it can change the way we approach the world, leaving us more flexible and open, which also increases our levels of tolerance as we think more deeply about the world around us. He says, "one study found that people who went abroad grew in extraversion, grew in agreeableness, and decreased their neuroticism."

In another article, he mentions that traveling enhances creativity as our brains are influenced by new environments and experiences. A brain's cognitive flexibility is its ability to bounce between a variety of ideas, which is essential for creativity. Galinsky states, "Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought." But this can only happen if a traveler really engages with the local culture and environment. 

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A fascinating study conducted in Germany examined a large group of students, with a portion of the group going on study abroads for 1-2 semesters, while the other students stayed in Germany. Each group was given a personality inventory, both before and after the travel period, which measured five different aspects of their personalities: extraversion, agreeableness, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and emotional stability. According to Forbes, "After returning from studying abroad, students tended to show an increase in openness, agreeableness, and emotional stability relative to the control group." All qualities that will improve our interactions with other people and the world as a whole. 

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Are There Any Mental Health Benefits?

Paul Nussbaum, a clinical neuropsychologist and professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, says that traveling can help to prevent such diseases as Alzheimer's. How? "Travel by definition is dropping your brain into a place that's novel and complex. You're stunned a little bit, and your brain reacts by being engaged, and you begin to process on a deep level." He also argues that some stress and anxiety can even be beneficial to your brain, since such emotions cause it to be more attentive. 

While some stress is inevitable when traveling, many agree that traveling can actually be a huge stress reliever since it gives us the chance to get away from the responsibilities and demands of everyday living. According to a study conducted by the University of Surrey, even anticipating and planning for a vacation can make you happier! Turns out that same happiness also sticks around for about a month after you get home as you reflect on the memories and experiences from your time abroad. 

Here are some ways that we have found a semester with ILP has helped us to become our happiest selves! 

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What Can I Do To Get The Most Out Of Traveling? 

Whether or not you glean the benefits of travel is primarily up to you. Adam Galinsky argues that it doesn't have to do with whether you tend to be more of a natural extrovert or an introvert. In fact, as we already talked about, some traits like that are likely to adjust during extensive time spent abroad. It is actually your mindset and attitude that most greatly determine how much you gain from traveling. 

So what exactly does this mean? Galinsky says, "A good mindset would be to strive to engage in local customs while abroad, and to try to understand why those customs exist. Try things you wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to try." 

He also states that the best time to travel is between ages 18-24 since those years are when our personality and concept of self are most fluid. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor of both education and psychology at the University of Southern California, agrees and says, “What a lot of psychological research has shown now is that the ability to engage with people from different backgrounds than yourself, and the ability to get out of your own social comfort zone, is helping you to build a strong and acculturated sense of your own self."

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Does The Length Of A Trip Matter?

The longer you're in a culture, the more likely it is that the things you learn from that culture will take root. At least that's what Galinsky says, and it makes a lot of sense to us. "In an ideal world a traveler would have the strongest depth and breadth (many countries visited with immersive experiences in each), but most fundamental to reaping the benefits of travel is to fully engage and try to understand the places you visit." We totally agree, and one of the things we love most about ILP is that it gives you an entire semester to immerse yourself in a new culture, learn from it, and then reflect on how you can implement what you learn into your own life. 

Since there are so many things to learn from each different continent and even country, we love helping our volunteers to spend multiple semesters in different parts of the world to continue this pattern of learning and changing. Have you heard about the benefits (like MAJOR discounts) that come from volunteering again as a head teacher? Even more than loving a specific country, many of our volunteers love what they gain from each individual culture, which leads them to want to live and serve for multiple semesters in completely different places. Think about all you could learn from spending a semester in Asia, and then in Europe, and then in Central America, and then in Africa. We can help you make that happen! Check out all the countries we can currently send volunteers to! 

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+Links To The Articles

If you're as fascinated by this information as we are, then you'll probably want to do some more research yourself. Here are the articles that we've read and included information from in this post: 

Copestake, Georgina. “Psychologist Adam Galinsky on How Travel Is Changing Our Brains.” Six-Two by Contiki, 29 June 2018, www.contiki.com/six-two/psychologist-adam-galinsky-travel-changing-brains/.

Crane, Brent. “For a More Creative Brain, Travel.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 31 Mar. 2015, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/03/for-a-more-creative-brain-travel/388135/.

Jury, Hannah. “How Travel Can Benefit Our Mental Health.” World of Psychology, 8 July 2018, psychcentral.com/blog/how-travel-can-benefit-our-mental-health/.

Kelleher, Suzanne Rowan. “This Is Your Brain On Travel.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 28 July 2019, www.forbes.com/sites/suzannerowankelleher/
2019/07/28/this-is-your-brain-on-travel/#4f429a0b2be6.

Noel, Josh. “Travel as a Health Regimen.” Chicagotribune.com, 10 May 2019, www.chicagotribune.com/travel/ct-xpm-2014-01-28-sc-trav-0128-travel-mechanic-20140128-story.html.

Patil, Vaishnavi. “How Does Travel Magically Improve Your Personality?” Science ABC, 12 Dec. 2019, www.scienceabc.com/humans/can-travel-affect-brain.html.

William, David K. “Science Proves That Traveling Can Boost Your Health And Overall Well-Being.” Lifehack, Lifehack, 25 Nov. 2015, www.lifehack.org/338212/
science-proves-that-travelling-can-boost-your-health-and-overall-well-being
.

Make sure you also check out the results of a study that included interview 3000 18-25 year olds about the power of travel and how it can actually help us to be better humans!

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Now who is ready to spend a semester volunteering in a foreign country? 

There are so many more benefits to international service and traveling than we could ever fit into one post. But why not learn what those are from your own first-hand experiences? We can help you make it happen! Click the button below to get in contact with a representative who can answer any questions you have and help you through the entire application process. 

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Topics: Tips For Your Twenties

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We are ILP, a Utah based non-profit org that has service abroad opportunities for college-age volunteers. We're sharing all our tips for making the most of your time traveling and living abroad.

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