6 things science tells us about travel and creativity

ERNEST HEMINGWAY WAS A LIFELONG TRAVELER. He famously loved hunting, boozing and bullfights in Spain, France, and Africa, and he spent much of his time in Cuba, where he is still revered. And readers of his writing will know how central travel was to his work.

“In going where you have to go,” Hemingway once said, “and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you’ll dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it to the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.”

It turns out, there may be some science to back this sentiment up. Neuroscientists and psychologists have been studying the connection between travel and creativity, and it turns out, travel does wonders for the creative mind.

1. Travel stimulates the mind in ways being at home doesn’t.

Neural pathways are sensitive to change. They are influenced by your environment, so when you change the environment you’re in, you can stimulate them in ways they wouldn’t be if you stayed in the same place. Experiencing new things — whether those things be as simple as seeing, smelling, touching, or hearing something new, or more complicated experiences like interactions with new people and cultures — wakes your mind up and revitalizes it. A more lively mind is a more creative one.

2. Travel makes you more open-minded — in more ways than one.

We’ve all heard the old Mark Twain quote about travel being “fatal to prejudice” but it turns out that the open-mindedness that comes along with travel does more than just make you a better person. Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia, told The Atlantic, “Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms.”

The more you interact with new people and cultures, Galinsky says, the more your mind experiences the creative benefits of that interaction.

3. Time abroad correlates with creative output.

One of Galinsky’s studies found a clear correlation between the creative output of fashion designers and how much time they’d spent abroad.

An obvious reason for this is that many of the designers were inspired by what they’d seen while living abroad, but as all travel writers know, that’s the point: being in a new place practically forces creative work out of you. Not only are you seeing new and strange things every day, but you’re starting to see the things you thought you knew back home in a different light. This ability to think differently about things is fundamental to creativity.

4. The most creative people are the ones who immerse themselves in other cultures.

Galinsky’s study found that people who were jet-setters — moving from place to place so quickly that they didn’t have enough time to immerse themselves in their host culture — weren’t as creative as the people who took the time to really get to know a place. So being well-traveled is not necessarily the best way to stimulate your creativity: you have to interact with the places you’re going to if you want to get the full benefit.

5. Travel helps you identify who you are.

Developing a unique voice is one of the most difficult parts of creative work. It requires a lot of soul-searching, and a solid amount of confidence in your own identity. Travel can help you better define your identity. You get pushed in ways you might not back home, and this forces you to confront who you really are. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a psychology professor at USC, says,“the ability to engage with people from different backgrounds than yourself, and the ability to get out of your own social comfort zone, is helping you to build a strong and acculturated sense of your own self.”

6. Travel makes you less racist, and being racist makes you less creative.

This sounds like a stretch, but it’s actually not: as Galinsky points out, people who travel have more flexible minds, and are often better at identifying similarities between themselves and the people they are visiting. These leads to having more trust for humanity as a whole.

A study at Tel Aviv University recently found that racism — or, more specifically, the belief that each race has an underlying “essence” that makes it different than other races — contributes to a more rigid style of thinking which hampers creativity.

So by traveling, you are not only becoming a better person, you’re becoming a more creative person.