Why Travel is Good for your Brain, according to Science

Spark Your Brain Magic with Travel

Milda

|July 17, 2019

Milda is a content writer with a particular interest in philosophy and nature. She is passionate about wildlife and all the nitty-gritty details of travel.


Traveling abroad is a great way to recharge, escape, and start anew. Similar to a spa treatment - only it lasts a bit longer than a few short hours! But did you know that travel actually makes your brain healthier? Better yet, travel boosts your cognitive power.


Dr. Marian Diamond, a professor of neuroscience who studied Einstein’s brain, would certainly agree. This trailblazing scientist argued that challenge and newness are some of the most crucial factors to the continued development of the brain. But what does this mean exactly?

Let’s start with a little story.

In the year of 1964, Dr. Diamond made a groundbreaking experiment that completely changed our understanding of the brain. Her experiments with curious laboratory rats have produced the first hard evidence of brain plasticity - that is, the brain’s ability to grow and change over time.

“It was thrilling,” Dr. Diamond said in the documentary My Love Affair the Brain. “Nobody else had made such measurements and found these results. We were terribly excited about it.”

How Do New Experiences Benefit Your Brain?

Masters Of Our Own Mind

A man is looking at mountains

Not so long ago, the idea that life experiences could affect the brain was considered radical. Scientists believed that genes determined intellect, meaning the brain's potential was inherited rather than developed. You were either born lucky or not, end of story. 

But now, thanks to groundbreaking findings in neuroscience, we understand that the outside world can enhance cognitive performance. The scientific term for this is neuroplasticity.

So what does this mean for us as people? In the words of Dr. Diamond, it means we're capable of making our brains better and healthier.

"We are the masters of our own mind." 

But how can you improve your brain function? 

The secret lies in your environment. Dr. Diamond discovered that rats raised in enriched environments (with plenty of toys and other rats to interact with) had a thicker cerebral cortex than those raised in impoverished environments (with no other rats and objects to play with). The same principles apply to the human brain. 

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Women sitting & smiling

Every enrichment to your environment  — from challenging yourself intellectually to gaining new experiences — propels the brain's activity, leading to growth and reorganization. According to science, one of the best ways to enrich our environment is travel.

Travel Literally Changes Your Brain

People tend to get stuck in their daily routines. However, the mind quickly gets bored of doing the same thing over and over again. Luckily, we live in a world with ample opportunity to shake up that routine by getting out and exploring.

Every new destination introduces novelty to your mind, activating the cognitive networks that keep your brain healthy.

“When you expose your brain to an environment that’s novel and complex or new and difficult, the brain literally reacts,” says Dr. Paul Nussbaum, a clinical neuropsychologist from the University of Pittsburgh.

From the moment you set foot in an unfamiliar place, you're flooded with new experiences. In order to process all these stimuli, you start to train your brain as if it were a muscle. Instead of dumbbells, however, you train with new sights, activities, flavors, people, languages, and more.

Travel Changes Your Brain

Brain funcionality

All the novelty that comes with traveling stimulates new connections between nerve cells, which in turn revitalizes your mind. Have you ever come back from a trip abroad and felt like you were born anew? That’s your brain growing. 

Think of Travel as a Vitamin for Your Brain

You may be tempted to believe that you can maintain your cognitive powers by taking a few vitamins. However, according to Harvard Health Publishing, there is little evidence to suggest that supplements actually work. In contrast, travel engages our minds in ways pills never could.

Each year, more and more experiments prove that new experiences support your brain’s health. People who are open to new experiences tend to perform better on memory and other cognitive tests, and also have better mental health.

Travel Girl Sand Dunes Mindfulness Independent Meditation

Women meditating in desert

“A person high in openness to experience is intellectually curious, independent, and imaginative; they prefer variety over routine and enjoy learning and trying new things,” writes Dr. David Hambrick from Michigan State University in Scientific American.

In addition, trying new things can boost your creativity — the mind’s ability to connect things in unexpected ways.  Dr. Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School and the author of numerous studies on the connection between travel and creativity, notes, “Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms.”

Traveling to new places has three major benefits:

  1. More curiosity to learn new things
  2. Creative ideas occur more naturally
  3. A greater sense of independence 

With so many advantages to traveling, you have more reason than ever to start planning your next trip.

“A person high in openness to experience is intellectually curious, independent, and imaginative; they prefer variety over routine and enjoy learning and trying new things.”

How to Get the Most Value Out of Your Trip

Travel won’t bring the desired results if you don’t challenge yourself along the way. It’s important to get out of your comfort zone and do something you’ve never done before. Raft down a river, ride a horse, dive underwater, or go snowmobiling across a glacier! Activities like these stimulate new connections between nerve cells and help the brain to generate new cells.

Travel Snowmobiling Winter Fun Outdoors Activity

Snowmobiling activity during the winter

"Those new and challenging situations cause the brain to sprout dendrites," explains Dr. Nussbaum. And dendrites (extensions of neurons that transmit information between different parts of the brain) are responsible for how well your brain performs.

Isn’t it amazing? This three-pound mass, which sent humans to the moon, improves while exploring new environments.

So what about the aging brain?

Health Benefits of Traveling Later in Life

Plasticity continues to adapt throughout your life. This means that we’re able to make our brains healthier at any age. Improving our cognitive health is our greatest “gift and responsibility,” according to Dr. Diamond.

Let’s look at three rules for keeping your brain sharp later in life:

Travel Old Couple Exploring

Old couple exploring the nature

Rule Number One: Don’t Take Your Brain Power for Granted

The brain is not immune to aging. Like the rest of our body, the brain changes as we grow older. Once we hit our late 20s, we start to lose neurons — the cells that make up the brain. While this might sound scary, it’s a natural process. Besides, there are many steps you can take to improve your brain health, travel being one of them. 

Rule Number Two: Attend the Mental Gym Regularly

Everyone knows that exercise reduces stress, as well as the risk of heart disease. We also know that in order to achieve the desired results, exercise needs to be regular.

The same is true for brain plasticity. It’s not enough to do something new or challenging only once. To keep the mind sharp as we age, we need to attend the mental gym regularly.

Travel activates your brain much like doing a Sudoku or learning a new language. Don’t like crossword puzzles? Take a trip instead!

Rule Number Three: Don’t Stop Traveling Later in Life

Activities commonly associated with travel, such as meeting new people or hiking through national parks, help prevent cognitive decline. According to the Global Coalition on Aging, there’s adequate research to suggest that regular participation in social or leisure activities, including travel, has the potential to reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Do you ever feel older than your years? Travel can provide a solution. According to the latest findings by Dr. Hambrick, openness to experiences can soften people’s experience of growing older. In other words, travel makes us feel young again.

Traveling later in life is not only important, but highly recommended. Go ahead and explore the world — your brain will thank you.

So, Where to Next, Brain?

Now that you know all the cognitive benefits of travel, it’s time to choose your next destination. Will you go somewhere you’ve never been before? Or to a familiar haunt but with new activities?

Let us know your favorite place to stretch your brain!

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Trip planning process