In addition to the reasons you already have for taking a vacation this summer, there’s another one you may not have considered: Travel is thought to increase creativity.
One of the difficulties we all face is the “curse of knowledge,” also known as subject matter expertise. Expertise is obviously valuable and required for success, but it can also hamper creativity. It can blind us to radical new ideas, because our mindset is so strong.
That’s why it’s good to hire young people—they aren’t shackled by deep knowledge. They’re ignorant of the conventional wisdom that dictates how things “should be done.” They’re outsiders, at least for a time.
Jonah Lehrer, author of the bestselling Imagine, believes that the virtue of youth is that the young simply do not have the knowledge to be insiders and have not had the chance to become experts. “While such ignorance has all sorts of obvious drawbacks,” he writes, “it also comes with creative advantages, which is why so many fields, from physics to punk rock, have been defined by their most immature members. The young know less, which is why they invent more.”
But creativity does not have to ebb as we mature. Lehrer maintains that we can continue to innovate as long as we work to maintain the perspective of the outsider. One great way to do that is to travel.
“We need to leave behind the safety of our expertise,” Lehrer explains. “But sometimes that’s not enough: We need to leave behind everything. One of the most surprising and pleasurable ways of cultivating an outsider perspective is through travel, getting away from the places we spend most of our time.”
Lehrer argues that when we are physically near the source of whatever problem we’re wrestling, our thoughts are almost automatically constricted, due to all the physical and mental associations present. While those limits can be helpful, they can also inhibit the imagination.
Lehrer uses the example of a cornfield. If you’re actually standing in the middle of a field of corn, your mind is automatically drawn to a pattern of thoughts and associations about corn: it’s a plant, it’s a cereal, it’s a staple of Midwestern farming. But now imagine instead that you’re standing on a crowded city street. Your brain will generate completely different associations: You’ll think about high-fructose corn obesity, or perhaps ethanol as fuel for automobiles, or even the Iowa caucuses. New connections are made that wouldn’t have been if you remained in the cornfield.
And this is why, Lehrer argues, travel helps boost creativity. Creativity is all about making new connections between seemingly disparate concepts. “When you escape from the place you spend most of your time,” he says, “your mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas previously suppressed.”
But it’s not enough to simply hop a plane to anywhere. If you want to experience the creative benefits of travel, then you have to rethink its purpose in the first place.
“Most people, after all, escape to Paris so they don’t have to think about those troubles they left behind,” Lehrer explains. “But here’s the ironic twist: your mind is most likely to solve your stubbornest problems while you’re sitting in a swank Left Bank café. So instead of contemplating that buttery croissant, mull over those domestic riddles you just can’t solve. You have the breakthrough while on break.”
And if you’re lobbying for a longer summer vacation, know that the longer you’re away from home, the stronger the effect. A recent study by researchers at INSEAD and the Kellogg School of Management reported that students who lived abroad for an extended period were significantly more likely to solve a difficult creativity problem than students who had never lived outside of their birth country. According to the researchers, the experience of another culture endows the traveler with a valuable open-mindedness, making it easier to realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings.
The lesson is this: Our creative thoughts are often stifled by the familiar. Our brains spend a great deal of time and energy choosing what not to notice, and the result is that creativity is traded for efficiency. When we distance ourselves from our most pressing problems, and our usual stomping grounds, the creative shackles loosen their grip on the imagination.
If you’re looking for some new and radical ideas, you may just want to put that “staycation” on hold, and board the next plane to somewhere else.
image credit: gaurdian
Matthew E. May is the author of “IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing.” He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are ‘elegant’ – a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.