The barricades at the front entrance of my high school appeared one day without warning. They weren’t the official-looking red-and-white striped police barricades I associated with construction work or crime scenes. Instead, this wall was constructed from classroom materials. The hodgepodge tower of chairs and wooden cabinets blocked the front gate, forcing students to climb around or find a back entrance.
Even if you managed to get past the blockade, there was the problem of finding adults—most of our teachers had decided not to show up either. All the teenagers and faculty and staff who normally would’ve shown up for classes at Lycée Auguste Pavie were out in the streets marching to protest a proposed law that would allow employers to fire employees under the age of 26 without providing any reason. Le contrat première embauche was so unpopular that more than half of France’s public universities were closed for protests, and around 1.5 million people filled the streets to demonstrate. I was a 16-year-old American living in France at the time, and I joined the melee to support my fellow students. We chanted against Prime Minister Villepin, raised banners, blocked traffic. The outcry against the amendment was so overwhelming, the law was eventually rescinded.
As someone who had never been particularly interested in the American political process, my participation in the student protests was transformative. It proved the power of the people in a democratic republic. It was my introduction to labor laws and governance and French policymaking. It was new and thrilling and a bit scary. But the most surprising thing was that this incident was hardly the only experience that reshaped my mind during the 11 months I spent abroad. It was one of many, many revelatory moments during which I came to understand that the world was far more varied than I’d previously believed. Most of all, I realized, the world did not conform to my vision of it—and that was a good thing. I was one of a multitude, shaped by my culture just as French people are shaped by theirs. The diverse, sometimes contradictory values of both America and France could coexist within me. I was learning, as social scientists would say, to be bicultural.
Travel has long been hailed as a transformational experience. Whether it’s the early Homo sapiens exodus from Africa or the creation of the Silk Road, travel has shaped and redefined human cultures throughout known history. Writers from Shakespeare to Hemingway have relied on unfamiliar settings and cultures to examine human behavior, musicians around the world borrow from each other, economists measure the impact of foreign goods on local markets. More recently scientists have also begun to research the physical and cognitive effects of time spent abroad, with results that could (if possible) infect even more people with wanderlust.
Research has shown that women who vacation twice a year have a reduced risk of heart disease, that college students who participate in study abroad display higher-than-average curiosity about academics and enjoy “learning for learning’s sake,” and that travel is associated with a lower risk of dementia. Travel can also stimulate neurological growth and cognitive flexibility—but the degree of this change depends greatly on the traveler’s own volition.
Research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology describes the four possible outcomes for people living or working abroad. People can experience separation (identifying only with their home culture and rejecting the host culture), assimilation (rejecting the home culture and accepting the host culture), marginalization (not identifying strongly with either culture), and integration (maintaining a strong connection to the home culture while also adapting to a new cultural identity). The last of these paths is what offers the greatest integrative complexity—another social science term that basically describes one’s ability to examine and understand multiple points of view. Integrative complexity isn’t so much about what you’re learning (like one culture’s preference for seafood over meat) as it is about how your brain frames the world. Demonstrating integration when traveling abroad, regardless of how long you spend in a foreign country, offers the largest benefits in terms of integrative complexity. If your brain is flexible and willing to entertain multiple views of the world, you’re likely to become more creative.
There might also be some correlating evidence from the MacArthur Foundation. Of the 701 individuals born in the U.S. and named fellows, 79 percent lived outside the state they were born in at the time of the award. This is compared to just 30 percent of the general population, and 42 percent of college-educated people. Of course, this is just the raw data; it alone doesn’t offer enough to prove whether the link between travel and creativity is correlation or causation. But scientists who conducted another study of students who studied abroad found those students performed higher on tests measuring general and culture-specific creative thinking. Maybe you could call it the “artists abroad effect.” Travel requires uncertainty and offers novel experiences. Our brains respond, as one neurologist says, by growing like jungles.
That’s not to say travel has only positive effects. Researchers who subjected Syrian hamsters to six-hour time changes twice a week for four weeks (to simulate the time zones crossed by international travelers) found that the hamsters had fewer neurons in their hippocampus than their undisturbed counterparts. Not only does long-term disruption of circadian rhythms have a negative impact on cognitive ability, it’s also related to a higher incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension.
If we can glean any insight from the experiences of travelers who came before us and the accumulated studies of researchers in neurology and psychology, it might be this: travel whenever possible, and use those opportunities to dig deeply into a new culture. Just be sure you pack an eyemask and try not to cross too many time zones too regularly.