Hadley_SketchWhy do people travel? How is it beneficial?

Each person has a unique story and motivation for traveling. I could write about the thousands of stories of people I have met here in my hostel, at each of my four jobs here in Buenos Aires, or out at a bar. But that would be insanely boring. We’ve all heard these stories, and while each is unique, their overlapping components lead to redundancy. Instead I will talk about one man’s interesting reason for traveling, and how it might be an unconscious reason that leads many travelers, myself included, to keep exploring.

When we are children, everything is astonishing and new. Our brains are constantly turned on because we are encountering new things every second, and they are making new connections and adapting to the world we live in. As we get older, our brains have already figured out many of the patterns of everyday life, and this alertness diminishes.

So how can we make our adult brains act like kid brains again? Travel. Travel wakes up the brain because each day presents new challenges, thereby boosting creativity because we must solve problems we don’t normally come across in our daily lives. In a recent article I read on this subject in The Atlantic, the author notes that “in recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have begun examining more closely what many people have already learned anecdotally: that spending time abroad may have the potential to affect mental change. In general, creativity is related to neuroplasticity, or how the brain is wired. Neural pathways are influenced by environment and habit, meaning they’re also sensitive to change: New sounds, smells, language, tastes, sensations, and sights spark different synapses in the brain and may have the potential to revitalize the mind.”

I studied neuroscience and immunology at UC Berkeley before transferring to study political science at Georgetown, and so when, after reading the article from The Atlantic, I next stumbled upon an autobiographical video dissecting the neurological changes that occur from prolonged travel, I was immediately intrigued. The piece is called “The Thousand Year Journey: From Oregon to Patagonia.” It is a brief documentary about Jedidiah Jenkins, a man who quit the job he loved to ride his bicycle from Oregon to the southernmost tip of South America. I’m lucky I even began watching the video because, honestly, the name and content suggested it would be another run-of-the-mill inspirational piece with some nice time-lapse photography about one guy’s life-changing adventure. It’s not about that at all.

The video talks about how routine makes time appear to pass more quickly, and how it is possible to alter this neurological phenomenon. Jedidiah says that after hearing older people complain about how their lives had “flown by,” and the all too familiar “just yesterday I was 19; I blinked and then I was 80,” he developed a fear of falling into the monotonous life many lead in their 30s,“the lost decade,” as it is so commonly referred to. It was with this mindset that Jedidah set off on his journey. As he put it: “I’ll do something radically different and that scares the crap out of me…and see if it changes my brain chemistry.”

The takeaway message is this: as adults, it is our duty to seek out new experiences if we want to live life fully and not let our middle-age years slip by. Many people who travel cannot explain why they have left their comfortable lives and have become addicted to living on the road. Unknowingly, we are altering our brain chemistry — this is why we love it. If we choose adventure, we keep fascination alive. And if we can continue to do this every day, our 100 years on this planet turn into 1,000.

Hadley Thayer is a rising sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. Humans, Being appears every other Sunday at thehoya.com.

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