Most people would agree that they feel refreshed after venturing to a new location. Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, by Elizabeth Gilbert further popularized the concept of a literal journey of self-discovery. A simple google search for “healing travel” yields almost endless results.
But if it does work, what is it about travel that’s so rejuvenating?
Is it the escape factor?
In his lyrical The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, David Morris quotes Laurence Gonzales of the National Geographic as saying “travel is a time-honored strategy for healing. It forces the unconscious reorganization of a number of areas of the brain, especially those involving the hippocampus, which has a special function of creating spatial maps. Every time you travel to an unfamiliar environment, your brain undergoes an important transformation.”
Laurence is probably working outside his pay grade here but he’s got an interesting point. The hippocampus in people diagnosed with PTSD is smaller, on average, than in people without. And treatment for PTSD does increase some areas of the hippocampus, as does learning new spatial maps. Unfortunately it’s not necessarily the same areas of the hippocampus and the “learning new spatial maps” that has been studied is extremely intensive—years of memorizing the streets of London to perfect recall. Hardly the stuff of holiday.
So the associations are, at best, really loose. Still, it’s an intriguing idea that a new place, with new stimuli and new memories, can somehow ameliorate old wounds.
Is it mindfulness?
I think it’s a matter of mindfulness. Every time I drive a new route, I notice that I’m not nearly as reactive to my fellow drivers’ bad behavior. I’m too busy not getting lost and watching for those sticky spots that pop up during rush hour. But usually within a couple of weeks I have the same response when getting cut-off or nearly sideswiped that most of us do.
When we’re doing a new thing, we’re much more present to our surroundings. When we’re admiring the landscape, examining artwork in a museum, or navigating a new transportation system, we’re being much more mindful than we usually are. A few days of “checking out” of our busy, chattering, worrying mind and “checking in” to our new (and hopefully pleasant) environment has the same function as a mindfulness retreat.
The role of play
Then there’s the fact that as adults we tend eschew play. Happily, this is changing, as evidenced by the record sales of adult coloring books. But it seems like we get so busy trying to keep up with our lives that there isn’t time to play—to do something for which there is no purpose other than enjoyment.
Americans have a terrible work life balance, working more nights and weekends, as well as more hours overall. Time is money, the saying goes, and we tend to try to squeeze every ounce of productivity we can out of every minute. No wonder we need a break.