This is Your Brain on Travel

Words and Photos by Alexis Gresh

This article originally appeared in BELOVED Magazine.


If you could go anywhere, where would you go? This common question that we consider small talk has big implications. Our dream destinations say so much about us. But no matter how different our plans may be, we all have one thing in common: we want to go places. And with planes, trains, and cellular data, the world is more connected and open than it has ever been. Our personal concierge mobile devices lend us the ability to book flights, accommodations, and a ride to the airport with just a few taps on a glass screen. The world has never been so accessible; as the distance between us and those dream destinations has shortened, our bucket lists have grown.

And with the adoption of a lengthy bucket list, we've fallen into a practice of viewing travel as a checklist of “have-dones” and “yet-to-dos.” While we may enjoy our rapid travel as a stimulating pastime, it creates a wake that long outlasts our visits. Tourist traffic often turns untouched beauty into a beaten path where we end up trampling the cultures that we admire. Many of us want to have an intimate experience with the local culture in the places we visit, but what experience are we left with when there are so many visitors that the hosts become scarce? It’s as though we were expecting to be a guest at the table during a family dinner, and our experiences end up more equivalent to raging house parties, where the atmosphere is set for partygoers and all conversation drowned out by noise. As floods of people have flown through their bucket lists, commercial tourism has hollowed out cultural centers of their historic heritage, turning them from meccas of cultural enrichment to theme parks for entertainment.

We're losing these places because we've lost sight of the influence that travel has. Our desire to explore results in more than a temporary geographical shift on our part. We often forget that travel is a symbiotic experience. Our vacation is not only our way of collecting new experiences - it's a cultural give and take. Whenever we step outside our borders, we carry our culture with us. We are ambassadors of our homeland, and all of our actions have an effect on the local culture. How we spend our money affects the economy; how we treat the locals affects their perception of our culture, and more.

When we lose ourselves in ardor for a foreign culture, we are willing to remain open to its ebb and flow. We contribute whatever we can, and we adjust ourselves whenever necessary. We blend ourselves into local life and begin to experience it authentically.

When we use our travel influence for good, destinations benefit from our travel. Jobs are created, the economy gets a boost, and the culture can be sustained. But the benevolent art of slow travel takes more time, effort, and care than commercial tourism. We have to spend more time in one place. Moving slowly through our bucket list gives us room to focus on each destination. There is nothing to be gained from knocking out four countries on a spring break wanderlust bender. Tourist guidebooks can only teach us about the place. Our experiences are much richer when we invest enough time to truly learn the place. When we practice slow travel, we exert more effort in informing ourselves of the history of our destination and how that history has shaped the customs of the local community. Once we've mastered the customs, we can begin to feel the pace of a city. And once we've mastered the pace, we can stop fumbling against the flow and start to experience a new way of life. This is something that has to be found and earned. It happens only when we begin to truly care about a place and its people. Slow travel is fueled by caring. When we lose ourselves in ardor for a foreign culture, we are willing to remain open to its ebb and flow. We contribute whatever we can, and we adjust ourselves whenever necessary. We blend ourselves into local life and begin to experience it authentically. And that's when we start to reap the benefits of slow travel.

Choosing slow travel not only protects our favorite places, but it also enriches us as well. Navigating another culture wraps us in a cocoon of self-reflection. Any cultural difference acts as a mirror that reflects our expectations back to us. This mirror can be a helpful tool for evaluating those expectations, why we have them, and whether they are helping us or hindering us from our best living. This is the reason multilingual interactions can have so much more intrapersonal depth to them compared to communicating with someone in your own tongue. It's a puzzle to piece together your message. You have to choose your words more carefully. You never truly realize what you want to convey until it becomes clear that it might not be something you know how to communicate, and you grow more self-aware because of it.

This theory of self-betterment isn't just speculation. Recent psychological studies have shown that intercultural immersion is good for our brains. Our cortex is hit with unfamiliar stimuli and is forced to problem-solve, adjust, respond, and grow more resilient. In a study published by the American Psychological Association, researchers Maddux and Galinsky explored the relationship between travel and neuroplasticity and found that travel can actually make you more creative. But there was a stipulation: the effect can only be attained through long-term intercultural exposure, and that's where mass tourism has been getting it wrong. A week-long trip to Rome including an excursion across the countryside to Florence won't give you enough time or space to experience any intimacy with Italian culture. This kind of travel timeline will allow only enough cultural exposure to leave you with sore feet, a trendy polaroid picture in front of the Colosseum, and an "I Heart Spaghetti" magnet bought at that shop where the natives allegedly buy their souvenir magnets. This is the type of tourism that has been eroding the cultures of our bucket list destinations.

Fortunately, the conditions are just right for tourism to flip. Our generation is known for our pioneering spirits. We have a genuine desire and curiosity for what's new, what's different, and what's unknown. We want to discover and experience it all, but we also have a heart for social justice and human rights. We're deeply sensitive when it comes to respecting cultural differences and protecting lifestyles. With our hearts so open and the world so open to us, we have a chance to begin to correct the cultural disruption set in place by commercial tourism. We can care for the places that we care about. When we choose slow travel, we won't accept any less than authentic connections to our destinations. That's when we'll start to bridge cultural differences, and we'll realize that the native hosts at these destinations are more than just characters in a foreign experience theme park. They have something in common with us: they are real people who dream of visiting places, too.