“Why do you travel?”

It is a simple question but something I have been thinking about a lot while in Colombia, probably because every single person I meet asks “Why are you here?”  I have been thinking mainly not about why I, as an individual, like to travel, but why humans in general are driven to travel.  The reasons I am here are hard to explain but under the desire to learn Spanish, avoid the awful economy in the US, and drink fresh juice daily, the reason I feel most content with is that I like the way my brain feels here.

Coming from a psychology background with a few classes dedicated to the brain, I respect the brain a lot.  I know all the little neurofibrillary tangles and every single part of the brain is behind every decision, big or small, we make.  Since thinking about the simple question “why do you travel?” I have tried looking for research and writing on the topic of why the human brain draws us to travel.  I’ve asked a couple of past professors if they have any ideas, but I really can’t find much.  An article on psychology of time travel.  A book written by a travel enthusiast on psychology.  One research article from 1954 titled “Some Hypotheses on the Psychology of Travel” sounded interesting, but not as fruitful as I had anticipated.

My brain "forced me" to road-trip around New Zealand

Finally, I stumbled upon a perfect article by Jonah Lehrer entitled Why We Travel.  Lehrer has been one of my favorite writers after a professor had us read an article by him entitled Porn and Mirror Neurons. He’s always pushing the envelope with fascinating topics from a neuroscience background.  Needless to say, I read and re-read Why We Travel with a smile. Lehrer asks all the same questions I am currently asking in a slightly different form:

But here’s my question: is this collective urge to travel – to put some distance between ourselves and everything we know–still a worthwhile compulsion? Or is it like the taste for saturated fat, one of those instincts we should have left behind in the Pleistocene epoch? Because if travel is just about fun then I think the TSA killed it.

Even though travel is oftentimes a lot of “fun,”  I agree that there is so much more to it.  I know there is something in the brain that changes when traveling. Why does our brain solve problems better while in a new environment?  Lehrer eludes to the idea that cognition changes when we are separated from our homes/countries/comfort zones. Distance can open the mind to new types of creative cognition, helping us solve underlying problems in our lives.  This would make sense why people run away from problems “at home”  or “find themselves” while traveling. When we travel, we think more and we think differently.  Our brains are given a mental work-out every single day, especially when we’re bombarded with a new language.  Looking through aisles in the grocery store, my brain is trying to link Spanish words with products and viceversa.  Do I want arepa made with maiz or chocolo?  And what about names of fruit that don’t even exist in the US: lulo, curuba, guanábana?  This seems like an insignificant example, but the small mind puzzles add up to assisting in the larger questions we pose in life.  Lehrer addresses such mind puzzles:

The same details that make foreign travel so confusing–Do I tip the waiter? Where is this train taking me?–turn out to have a lasting impact, making us more creative because we’re less insular. We’re reminded of all that we don’t know, which is nearly everything; we’re surprised by the constant stream of surprises.

The simple questions above elude to something much bigger.  Maybe our brains want us to travel because we are forced to be flexible.  If you’re not flexible, you hate travel (or you are an awful travel companion).  This brain flexibility opens us up to increased creativity and unique ideas beyond what can happen while stuck in a daily rut “at home.”  This topic is something I want to continue researching and will hopefully have more answers to “why we travel” in upcoming articles…