It is often said that “travel broadens the mind” but what does this really mean for the brain?
By Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.
Mark Twain once wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Being a neuroscientist, I am fortunate to be able to travel to some far away places to present my work and to meet and learn from international colleagues and mentors. And as a British citizen having lived in different countries, I am acutely aware of how different cultures can influence one’s identity. I also love spending my spare time hiking through the beautiful mountains in South Africa, which also enables me to broaden my identification with parts of the world vastly different to my home country, and with others from different backgrounds. Identification is a self-concept that relies on interacting neurons within circuits such as those connecting the prefrontal cortex, somatosensory cortex and emotion centres in the brain. Even neural impulses work best by traveling across and synchronising between vast areas of the cortex rather than localising to one specific area!
Sometimes, as I wander through busy airports en route to my destination, I find myself glimpsing at fellow travellers, wondering whether travel really does lead to broad, charitable views of men and things, or whether mixing oneself with other cultures simply confuses our minds! Under the spotlight of people’s current reactions to globalisation – such as Brexit, the election of US President Donald Trump, mass-migration and the increased threat of extremists from various cultures, it is useful to consider whether people who can’t or won’t travel are actually better off, and what effect traveling and migration might have on our cultural identities. With all this exposure to new cultures and better access to travel, how do our brains respond to new places and people? If we make an effort to learn about different cultures, does it alter the brain for the better – or does traveling and migration to far-flung places have a detrimental influence on our neural pathways in the long run?
Traveling abroad and meeting new people might be exciting but for some it can also be scary! However, avoiding travel and not meeting new people (even within one’s town or local neighbourhood) can keep an underlying, general fear of the unknown alive in the mind. The fear response in the brain is well documented by neuroscientists, and involves activation of the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the middle of the brain that can make our excitement become a negative emotion and behaviour. The amygdala is often activated when we are afraid, along with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis that together represent the brain’s threat-detector.
A fear response to groups of people who are different to us is prominent in today’s global society and also sadly a part of South African history. Yet this historical approach to different cultures might be changing in the modern era with greater exposure to and interaction with each other through travel and migration. Yet the history of prejudice and discrimination that characterised the Apartheid era – which began when the Dutch, British and other European colonialists travelled long distances from Europe to South Africa – might have been made all the more worse by a lack of integration into existing African societies.
But now we have better opportunities to learn how to integrate, as more of us, not just an elite few, are able to broaden our minds through domestic and international travel. Exposure to people who are different to use can create lasting friendships that change the brain’s networks, including the link between the amygdala and how our prefrontal cortex evaluates our perceptions of people, places, and even ourselves. Getting to know people who might at first be unknown to us can lead to the release in the brain of the hormone oxytocin, which increases our trust and empathy, reduces feelings of threat and changes brain pathways forever.
In line with this, my colleagues at the University of Cape Town, in collaboration with Dr Melike Fourier and Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, have recently published a brain imaging study showing that cultural identity can alter the way the amygdala, frontal cortex and other parts of the brain react to physical and social pain (e.g. watching someone else being physically hurt versus social exclusion and shame). In other words, if you can identify with a person, or group of people, even if they at first seem very different to you, it can alter your empathy towards them and how your brain reacts. The good news is, with regular exposure to people who may be very different to you, the brain and the level of empathy towards them (understanding their feelings) can be adjusted. The process of altering our empathy and understanding towards other cultures is a hugely creative process.
Creativity in the brain also makes one a more focused problem-solver – a function linked to the prefrontal cortex and a group of microcircuits called the executive control network. The executive control network includes the dorsolateral (literally: “top-side”) prefrontal cortex, the ventromedial (literally: “bottom-middle”) prefrontal cortex, the orbitofrontal cortex (the bit of the brain between your eyes) and the anterior cingulate cortex (that monitors whether or not you have solved a problem or achieved a goal). People who travel (either inside or outside their home country) are more likely to be creative problem solvers with broader memory networks that harness sophisticated responses to the environment, and are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. These findings also coincide with being more appreciative of one’s own culture, as well as less fearful of trying new experiences, such as foods that one might once have regarded as foreign. Planning and participating in travel often activate reward pathways in the brain, including the opioid, dopamine and adrenergic neurotransmitter systems. And we all know that planning for a holiday in a far-away place is almost as much fun as being on the holiday itself!
So does travel really broaden the mind? Mark Twain might have been onto something! With the advent of modern neuroscientific techniques that allow us to measure the living brain while it functions, we can corroborate his poetic viewpoint. It seems that by increasing our exposure to other types of people who are different to us, and other countries that are different to our home country, we broaden our trust and understanding capabilities. By doing so we are also likely to make more friends, become more creative at problem solving, sharpen our mental focus, feel less fearful and generally experience greater happiness and well-being. So even if you cannot travel by plane, train or automobile, a trip to another neighbourhood to meet new people could broaden your mind and improve your (and somebody else’s) life!
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