Previously, I explored the idea of travelling being able to stimulate the reward system. Now I want to pose a new question. Can your travels make you smarter?
To clarify, I’m not referring to gaining knowledge of the plethora of cultures and geographic locations you’re exposed to. I’m wondering if the experiences drawn from travelling can strengthen brain functioning.
To narrow down my focus a little this blog post will focus on our executive functioning, which are a set of mental processes used to control our everyday behaviours. Our highly developed prefrontal cortex (the very front part of your brain) is responsible for proper executive functioning. I’ll be exploring some of the executive functions and determine if they can be enhanced through travelling.
How quickly can you shift your thinking? Cognitive flexibility is the mental ability to shift your thinking of one concept to another, or think of simultaneous concepts. For example, if someone asks you to sort a deck of cards by number then halfway through they ask you to sort the remainder of the cards by shape, how quickly could you mentally switch to the new set of instructions?
Is travelling beneficial for cognitive flexibility?
I would say 100% yes! You’re in an unfamiliar environment and I guarantee you things won’t go exactly as you planned. Maybe its Sunday and that restaurant you wanted to eat at closed early or you missed that bus heading to your next destination. In both cases you need to learn to adapt, make alternate plans and shift your mindset so that you can make the best out of every situation!
This is essentially knowledge you retain for a short period of time. Like when you’re reciting a phone number in your head till you write it down (or type it on your phone). Working memory can be sub-grouped to verbal/non-verbal memory or spatial/non-spatial.
Is travelling beneficial to working memory?
Definitely! Let’s consider spatial working memory. Road maps can be fairly complicated. In a metropolitan area sometimes it can feel like you’re a mouse inside a giant maze. So you need to remember which roads you walked down and which you haven’t. Likewise when you ask someone for directions you need to retain their instructions. Sure theres Google Maps but you don’t want to be glued to your phone the entire time as a) you’re making yourself vulnerable to pickpocketing or tourist scams, b) you might miss out on seeing some cool stuff and c) if you end up getting lost you might not be able retrace your steps.
Also referred to as response inhibition. It’s to inhibit your impulses or natural behavioural responses in an effort to perpetuate a more appropriate behaviour. Its like when you walk by someone with a bag of freshly baked goods, your instincts might tell you to grab their food but your brain tells you the more appropriate response is to go buy some of your own.
Is travelling beneficial to inhibitory control?
Okay it’s much harder to decide whether this executive function benefits from travelling. Many people go to destinations where they can “lose control.” I suppose one could argue that temporarily loosening your grip on your impulses helps you to better control them in the long run.
It’s basically how well you’re able to concentrate on particular stimuli to accomplish your goal. A simple example is crossing a busy intersection. There are an abundance of stimuli from someone talking on the phone to flashy billboards. What you need to focus on is the crosswalk signal telling you when it is safe to cross.
Is travelling beneficial to attentional control?
When you go to a new country/region, you are bombarded with a variety of novel stimuli. It’s good to soak it all in once in a while but not always. You wouldn’t want to miss your broadway musical because something flashy caught your eye at Times Square! Being surrounded by new stimuli and having to sort the important ones from the distractions definitely helps to build better attentional control.
You can learn a lot through adventures, whether its about yourself or the world around you. It’s interesting to think that these short-term experiences can help you with long-term cognitive functioning. The ability to fine tune these simple executive functions can help you with complex decision making, empathy and being an overall better human being. What doesn’t kill you makes you smarter!