With the exception of sports, it’s been pretty easy for me to keep in touch with the U.S. I have wireless, high speed Internet in my apartment, an iTouch and a laptop, and plenty of time to kill. Taiwan’s a free land, so the Internet is my oyster. Nytimes.com is my bread and butter. WSJ.com editorials are the lima beans I force myself to eat for the sake of a (politically) balanced diet. The experience of reading a newspaper article about the Supreme Court doesn’t change much if you’re reading it in Richmond or Kaohsiung.
My reading habits have changed a little bit. I’m reading more blogs now because I have more time on my hands. Not all blogs are repositories for poorly reasoned, instant reaction rants. Marginalrevolution.com, gregmankiw.blogspot.com and theatlantic.com/business are some of my favorites. They help me understand developments in economics and finance. I usually check them once a day.
Sometimes I have the good fortune of stumbling on a new, interesting blog. Recently I found “The Frontal Cortex,” a blog by Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer’s a gifted writer, trained neuroscientist, and a smart cookie (a former Rhodes Scholar).
Lehrer adds a new post every few days. The post that really hooked me to “The Frontal Cortex” discusses recent research into the long-term psychological benefits of travel. Many of the conclusions gibe with what I’ve long thought about travel’s positive effects on the brain, but it’s very interesting to observe these effects measured in the lab. Here are the main points:
“Why do we travel? . . . Several new science papers suggest that getting away—and it doesn’t even matter where you’re going–is an essential habit of effective thinking. . . .
The reason such travels are mentally useful involves a quirk of cognition, in which problems that feel “close”–and the closeness can be physical, temporal, or even emotional–get contemplated in a more concrete manner. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful–it allows us to focus on the facts at hand–it also inhibits our imagination. Consider a field of corn. When you’re standing in the middle of the field . . . your mind is automatically drawn to thoughts that revolve around the primary meaning of corn, which is that it’s a plant, a cereal, a staple of Midwestern farming.
But now imagine that same field of corn from a different perspective. Instead of standing on a farm, you’re now in the midst of a crowded city street, dense with taxis and pedestrians. . . The plant will no longer just be a plant: instead, your vast neural network will pump out all sorts of associations. You’ll think about high-fructose corn syrup, obesity [and so on]. . . The noun is now a web of tangents, a loom of remote connections.
What does this have to do with travel? When we escape from the place we spend most of our time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas we’d previously suppressed. We start thinking about obscure possibilities–corn can fuel cars!–that never would have occurred to us if we’d stayed back on the farm. Furthermore, this more relaxed sort of cognition comes with practical advantages, especially when we’re trying to solve difficult problems. Look, for instance, at a recent experiment led by the psychologist Lile Jia at Indiana University. He randomly divided a few dozen undergrads into two groups, both of which were asked to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. . . One group of students was told that the task was developed by Indiana University students studying abroad in Greece, while the other group was told that the task was developed by Indiana students studying in Indiana. At first glance, it’s hard to believe that such a slight and seemingly irrelevant difference would alter the performance of the subjects. Why would it matter where the task was conceived?
Nevertheless, Jia found a striking difference between the two groups: when students were told that the task was imported from Greece, they came up with significantly more transportation possibilities. They didn’t just list buses, trains, and planes; they cited horses, triremes, spaceships, bicycles, and even Segway scooters. Because the source of the problem was far away, the subjects felt less constrained by their local transport options; they didn’t just think about getting around in Indiana, they thought about getting around all over the world, and even in deep space.
In a second study, Jia found that people were much better at solving a series of insight puzzles when told that the puzzles came all the way from California, and not from down the hall. These subjects considered a far wider range of alternatives, which made them more likely to solve the challenging brain teasers. There is something intellectually liberating about distance. . . .
The larger lesson, though, is that our thoughts are shackled by the familiar. The brain is a neural tangle of near infinite possibility, which means that it spends a lot of time and energy choosing what not to notice. As a result, creativity is traded away for efficiency; we think in literal prose, not symbolist poetry. A bit of distance, however, helps loosen the chains of cognition, making it easier to see some-thing new in the old; the mundane is grasped from a slightly more abstract perspective. As T. S. Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” . . . .
According to the researchers, the experience of another culture endows us with a valuable open-mindedness, making it easier to realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings. Consider the act of leaving food on the plate: in China, this is often seen as accomplishment, a signal that the host has provided enough to eat. But in America the same act is a subtle insult, an indication that the food wasn’t good enough to finish.
Such cultural contrasts mean that seasoned travelers are alive to ambiguity, more willing to realize that there are different (and equally valid) ways of interpreting the world. This, in turn, allows them to expand the circumference of their “cognitive inputs,” as they refuse to settle for their first answers and initial guesses. . . .
Of course, this mental flexibility doesn’t come from mere distance. It’s not enough to just change time zones, or to schlep across the world only to eat Le Big Mac instead of a Quarter-Pounder with cheese. Instead, this increased creativity appears to be a side-effect of difference: we need to change cultures, to experience the disorienting diversity of human traditions. 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. . . . When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.”
I should forward this article to the Fulbright Foundation. Fulbright’s primary mission is to foster international understanding, but one of its ancillary goals is to create a more enlightened and innovative generation of U.S. leaders. If you agree this research supports its conclusions, Fulbright probably succeeds in meeting its ancillary goal.
Fulbrighters are, in general, a smart bunch. I think Lehrer’s being perhaps a shade too egalitarian when he implies that all travelers stand to benefit. Not everyone on your next transoceanic flight is destined for revelation. Travel probably won’t make everyone more creative, or at the very least won’t do so equally for every traveller. As Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson loved observing, not everyone makes hay of foreign travel. If you don’t seek out and think about new experiences, odds are travel won’t make you a more expansive thinker.
I think my experience in Taiwan confirms Lehrer and Professor Jia’s conclusions. My “travel” this year—a one year residency in what was for me at first a very strange culture—is much more extensive than the two weeks in France that Lehrer’s talking about. Therefore, I’m not basing my claim upon personal brilliance. Even your average American would start to think a bit differently after ten months.
There are concrete changes in my thinking to which I can refer. One of the most eye-opening differences between East Asian and Western culture involves the individual’s position within society. As Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn note in their excellent book, China Wakes: “When Western artists were producing masterpieces like the Mona Lisa or The Night Watch, Chinese artists were painting magnificent scrolls in which the humans were just specks, like a tiny monk observing a huge waterfall.” Chinese look at themselves in terms of how they contribute to society. Westerners tend to embrace individualism, looking at society in terms of what it offers the individual.
Talking about the pros and cons of each perspective is really interesting but outside the scope of this blog post. All I want to note is how a year in Taiwan has altered how I approach thinking about social problems, and how I think about my future.
For example, I’m often surprised nowadays about how often I want to challenge a friend who tells me the most important thing in planning your future is if you’re happy. I don’t think that’s true. You should think about what your society needs from you.
I’m not saying I’ve resolved to be a high school math teacher or a G.P. doctor because America needs those professionals the most. What I mean is that the question of how I can best contribute to society is more important to my decision-making than it was in the past. It remains one element among others, but it’s more weighty to me than ever before.
My immersion in Chinese culture has also altered how I approach solving problems in groups. I wrote in September about my afternoon working at Kaohsiung City Hall for typhoon relief. Tons of boxes filled with provisions sat in the large atrium. My American friends and I walked over to a bunch of boxes and started to carry one or two at a time to a nearby truck.
The Taiwanese volunteers watched us curiously for a few minutes. They only stopped staring when a bell rang and a few volunteers walked to the front of the group with clipboards and started speaking in Chinese through a blow horn. The head volunteers spoke for a few minutes and then dispersed the group.
All of the volunteers broke up into long, interconnected lines. They passed each box along a line of volunteers, linking up at different points with other lines of volunteers. It was the most efficient distribution method I’d ever seen. A human, philanthropic assembly line.
I’ve caught myself approaching problems the same way, whether or not they involve heavy lifting. The power of a well harnessed group is exponentially greater than the collected power of many individual efforts. Whether it be putting together a presentation, throwing a successful party or writing and producing a good teaching video, I spend much more time thinking about how to organize the group as I do thinking about how to do my part well. There are implications for this at all levels of my thinking.
I won’t bore you by going on. I’m sure you, dear reader, can think of your own examples. You don’t need to travel far to encounter new objects, opinions and expectations. There’s also the important caveat that traveling to New Jersey noticeably reduces your cognitive abilities!
Next time you catch yourself stressing over a cancelled flight or a, say, hostel owner who forgot to reserve your 3 AM cab thereby forcing you to walk two miles through Budapest in freezing weather (no, I’m not bitter anymore!), remember the benefits of travel. Little by little, you’re becoming a more well rounded, insightful and creative person. Even European countries can’t tax such benefits.