Friday, December 11, 2009

Why Adventure is Good for You

Hello World!

Welcome back to Think Like a Jillian (honestly, I can’t believe you are still checking this blog. Don’t you have life??). Yes, I’ve been off-line for awhile. There was a minor blip in my professional life that has since been worked out and I am back to being your favorite blogger!

As many of you know, travel is one of my favorite hobbies. I recently read a fabulous article about travel and the science of travel. Excerpts are below. (Via Jonah)

It's 4:15 in the morning, and my alarm clock has just stolen away a lovely dream. My eyes are open but my pupils are still closed, so all I see is gauzy darkness. For a brief moment, I manage to convince myself that my wakefulness is a mistake, and that I can safely go back to sleep. But then I roll over and see my zippered suitcase, bulging with too many little tubes of toothpaste. I let out a sleepy groan: I'm going to the airport.

The taxi is late. There should be an adjective (a synonym of sober, only worse) to describe the state of mind that comes from waiting in the orange glare of a streetlight before drinking a cup of coffee. And then the taxi gets lost. And then I get nervous, be- cause my flight leaves in an hour. And then we're here, and I'm hurtled into the harsh in- candescence of Terminal B, running with a suitcase so that I can wait in a long security line. My belt buckle sets off the metal detector, my four-ounce stick of deodorant is confiscated, and my left sock has a gaping hole.

And then I get to the gate. By now, you can probably guess the punch line of this very banal story: my flight has been canceled. I will be stuck in this terminal for the next 218 minutes, my only consolation a cup of caffeine and a McGriddle sandwich. And then I will miss my connecting flight and wait, in a different city with the same menu, for another plane. And then, fourteen hours later, I'll be there.

Why do we travel? It's not the flying I mind--I will always be awed by the physics that get a fat metal bird into the upper troposphere. The rest of the journey, however, can feel like a tedious lesson in the ills of modernity, from the predawn x-ray screening to the sad airport malls peddling crappy souvenirs. It's globalization in a nutshell, and it sucks. And yet here we are, herded in ever-greater numbers onto planes that stay the same size. Sometimes, of course, we travel because we have to. Because in this digital age there is still something important about the analog handshake. Or eating Mom's turkey on Thanksgiving. Or seeing the girl- friend during her semester break.

But most travel isn't non-negotiable. (In 2008, only 30 percent of trips over fifty miles were done for business.) Instead, we travel because we want to, because the annoyances of the airport are outweighed by the visceral thrill of being someplace new. Because work is stressful and our blood pressure is too high and we need a vacation. Because home is boring. Because the flights were on sale. Because Paris is Paris.

Travel, in other words, is a basic human desire. We're a migratory species, even if our migrations are powered by jet fuel and Chicken McNuggets. 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.

The good news, at least for those of you reading this while stuck on a tarmac eating stale pretzels, is that pleasure is not the only consolation of travel. In fact, 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. It's not about vacation, or relaxation, or sipping daiquiris on an unspoiled tropical beach: it's about the tedious act itself, putting some miles between home and wherever you hap-pen to spend the night.

Let's begin with the most literal aspect of travel, which is that it's a verb of movement. Thanks to modern engine technology, we can now move through space at an inhuman speed. The average walk covers three miles per hour, which is two hundred times slower than the cruising speed of a Boeing 737. There's something inherently useful about such speedy movement, which allows us to switch our physical locations with surreal ease. For the first time in human history, we can outrun the sun and segue from one climate to another in a single day.

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, surrounded by the tall cellulose stalks and fraying husks, the air smelling faintly of fertilizer and popcorn, 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. (And yet, for some peculiar reason, you're still thinking about corn.) 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 Michael Pollan; you'll contemplate ethanol and the Iowa caucus, those corn mazes for kids at state fairs and the deliciousness of succotash, made with bacon and lima beans. The noun is now a web of tangents, a loom of remote connections.

Of course, it's not enough to simply get on a plane: if we want to experience the creative benefits of travel, then we have to re-think its raison d' ètre. Most people, after all, escape to Paris so they don't have to think about those troubles they left behind. But here's the ironic twist: our mind is most likely to solve our stubbornest problems while sitting in a swank Left Bank café. So instead of contemplating that buttery croissant, we should be mulling over those domestic riddles we just can't solve.

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."

(There’s more! [here])

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