It's 4.15 in the morning and my alarm clock has just stolen away a lovely dream. My eyes are open but my pupils are still closed, so all I see is gauzy darkness. For a brief moment, I manage to convince myself that my wakefulness is a mistake, and that I can safely go back to sleep. But then I roll over and see my zippered suitcase. I let out a sleepy groan: I'm going to the airport.
The taxi is late. There should be an adjective (a synonym of sober, only worse) to describe the state of mind that comes from waiting in the orange glare of a streetlight before drinking a cup of coffee. And then the taxi gets lost. And then I get nervous, because my flight leaves in an hour. And then we're here, and I'm hurtled into the harsh incandescence of Terminal B, running with a suitcase so I can wait in a long security line. My belt buckle sets off the metal detector, my 120ml stick of deodorant is confiscated, and my left sock has a gaping hole.
And then I get to the gate. By now you can probably guess the punchline of this very banal story: my flight has been cancelled. I will be stuck in this terminal for the next 218 minutes, my only consolation a cup of caffeine and a McGriddle sandwich. And then I will miss my connecting flight and wait, in a different city, with the same menu, for another plane. And then, 14 hours later, I'll be there.
Why do we travel? It's not the flying I mind – I will always be awed by the physics that gets a fat metal bird into the upper troposphere. The rest of the journey, however, can feel like a tedious lesson in the ills of modernity, from the pre-dawn X-ray screening to the sad airport malls peddling crappy souvenirs. It's globalisation in a nutshell, and it sucks.
And yet here we are, herded in ever greater numbers on to planes that stay the same size. Sometimes we travel because we have to. Because in this digital age there is still something important about the analogue handshake. Or eating Mum's turkey at Christmas.
But most travel isn't non-negotiable. (In 2008 only 30% of trips over 50 miles were made for business.) Instead we travel because we want to, because the annoyances of the airport are outweighed by the visceral thrill of being someplace new. Because work is stressful and our blood pressure is too high and we need a vacation. Because home is boring. Because the flights were on sale. Because New York is New York.
Travel, in other words, is a basic human desire. We're a migratory species, even if our migrations are powered by jet fuel and Chicken McNuggets. But here's my question: is this collective urge to travel – to put some distance between ourselves and everything we know – still a worthwhile compulsion? Or is it like the taste for saturated fat: one of those instincts we should have left behind in the Pleistocene epoch? Because if travel is just about fun, then I think the new security measures at airports have killed it.
THE GOOD NEWS, at least for those of you reading this while stuck on a tarmac, is that pleasure is not the only consolation of travel. In fact, several new science papers suggest that getting away – and it doesn't even matter where you're going – is an essential habit of effective thinking. It's not about a holiday, or relaxation, or sipping daiquiris on an unspoilt tropical beach: it's about the tedious act itself, putting some miles between home and wherever you happen to spend the night.
Let's begin with the most literal aspect of travel, which is that it's a verb of movement. Thanks to modern engine technology, we can now move through space at an inhuman speed. The average walker moves at 3mph, which is 200 times slower than the cruising speed of a Boeing 737. There's something inherently useful about such speedy movement, which allows us to switch our physical locations with surreal ease. For the first time in human history, we can outrun the sun and segue from one climate to another in a single day.
The reason such travels are mentally useful involves a quirk of cognition, in which problems that feel "close" – and the closeness can be physical, temporal or even emotional – get contemplated in a more concrete manner. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful – it allows us to focus on the facts at hand – it also inhibits our imagination. Consider a field of corn. When you're standing in the middle of the field, surrounded by the tall cellulose stalks and fraying husks, the air smelling faintly of fertiliser and popcorn, your mind is automatically drawn to thoughts that revolve around the primary meaning of corn, which is that it's a plant, a cereal, a staple of farming.
But now imagine that same field of corn from a different perspective. Instead of standing on a farm, you're now in the midst of a crowded city street, dense with taxis and pedestrians. (And yet, for some peculiar reason, you're still thinking about corn.) The plant will no longer just be a plant: instead, your vast neural network will pump out all sorts of associations. You'll think about glucose-fructose syrup, obesity and Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food; ethanol made from corn stalks, popcorn at the cinema and creamy polenta simmering on a wood stove in Emilia Romagna. The noun is now a web of tangents, a loom of remote connections.
What does this have to do with travel? When we escape from the place we spend most of our time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas we'd suppressed. We start thinking about obscure possibilities – corn can fuel cars – that never would have occurred to us if we'd stayed back on the farm. Furthermore, this more relaxed sort of cognition comes with practical advantages, especially when we're trying to solve difficult problems.
Look, for instance, at a recent experiment led by the psychologist Lile Jia at Indiana University. He randomly divided a few dozen undergrads into two groups, both of which were asked to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. (This is known as a creative generation task.) One group of students was told that the task was developed by Indiana University students studying abroad in Greece (the distant condition), while the other group was told that the task was developed by Indiana students studying in Indiana (the near condition). At first glance, it's hard to believe that such a slight and seemingly irrelevant difference would alter the performance of the subjects. Why would it matter where the task was conceived?
Nevertheless, Jia found a striking difference between the two groups: when students were told that the task was imported from Greece, they came up with significantly more transportation possibilities. They didn't just list buses, trains and planes; they cited horses, triremes, spaceships, bicycles and even Segway scooters. Because the source of the problem was far away, the subjects felt less constrained by their local transport options; they didn't just think about getting around in Indiana – they thought about getting around all over the world and even in deep space.
In a second study, Jia found that people were much better at solving a series of insight puzzles when told that the puzzles came all the way from California and not from down the hall. These subjects considered a far wider range of alternatives, which made them more likely to solve the challenging brain teasers. There is something intellectually liberating about distance.
The problem is that most of our problems are local – people in Indiana are worried about Indiana, not the eastern Mediterranean or California. This leaves two options: 1) find a clever way to trick ourselves into believing that our nearby dilemma is actually distant, or 2) go someplace far away and then think about our troubles back home. Given the limits of self-deception – we can't even tickle ourselves properly – travel seems like the more practical possibility.
Of course it's not enough simply to get on a plane: if we want to experience the creative benefits of travel, then we have to rethink its raison d'être. Most people escape to Paris so they don't have to think about those troubles they left behind. But here's the ironic twist: our mind is most likely to solve our stubbornest problems while we are sitting in a swank Left Bank cafe. So instead of contemplating that buttery croissant, we should be mulling over those domestic riddles we just can't solve.
The larger lesson is that our thoughts are shackled by the familiar. The brain is a neural tangle of near-infinite possibility, which means that it spends a lot of time and energy choosing what not to notice. As a result, creativity is traded away for efficiency; we think in literal prose, not symbolist poetry. A bit of distance, however, helps loosen the chains of cognition, making it easier to see something new in the old; the mundane is grasped from a slightly more abstract perspective. As TS Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
But distance isn't the only psychological perk of travel. Earlier this year researchers at Insead, a business school in France, and at the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago reported that students who had lived abroad were 20% more likely to solve a computer simulation of a classic psychological task known as the Duncker candle problem than students who had never lived outside their birth country.
The Duncker problem has a simple premise: a subject is given a cardboard box containing a few drawing pins, a book of matches and a waxy candle. They are told to determine how to attach the candle to a piece of corkboard on a wall so that it can burn properly and no wax drips on to the floor. Nearly 90% of people pursue the same two strategies, even though neither strategy can succeed. They elect to pin the candle directly to the board, which would cause the candle wax to shatter. Or they say they'd melt the candle with the matches so that it sticks to the board. But the wax wouldn't hold; the candle would fall to the floor. At this point most people surrender. They assume that the puzzle is impossible, that it's a stupid experiment and a waste of time. Only a slim minority of subjects – often fewer than 25% – come up with the solution, which involves attaching the candle to the cardboard box with wax and then pinning the cardboard box to the corkboard. Unless people have an insight about the box – that it can do more than hold drawing pins – they'll waste candle after candle. They'll repeat their failures while they're waiting for a breakthrough. This is known as the bias of "functional fixedness", since we're typically terrible at coming up with new functions for old things. That's why we're so surprised to learn that an oven can be turned into a small closet or that an apple can be used as a bong.
What does this have to do with living abroad? According to the researchers, the experience of another culture endows us with a valuable open-mindedness, making it easier to realise that a single thing can have multiple meanings. Consider the act of leaving food on the plate: in China this is often seen as a compliment, a signal that the host has provided enough to eat. But in America the same act is a subtle insult, an indication that the food wasn't good enough to finish.
Such cultural contrasts mean that seasoned travellers are alive to ambiguity, more willing to realise that there are different (and equally valid) ways of interpreting the world. This in turn allows them to expand the circumference of their "cognitive inputs", as they refuse to settle for their first answers and initial guesses. After all, maybe they carry candles in drawing-pin boxes in China. Maybe there's a better way to attach a candle to a wall.
OF COURSE THIS mental flexibility doesn't come from mere distance. It's not enough to just change time zones or to schlep across the world only to eat Le Big Mac instead of a quarter pounder with cheese. Instead this increased creativity appears to be a side-effect of difference: we need to change cultures, to experience the disorienting diversity of human traditions. The same details that make foreign travel so confusing – Do I tip the waiter? Where is this train taking me? – turn out to have a lasting impact, making us more creative because we're less insular. We're reminded of all that we don't know, which is nearly everything; we're surprised by the constant stream of surprises. Even in this globalised age, slouching toward similarity, we can still marvel at all the earthly things that weren't included in the Lonely Planet guidebook and that certainly don't exist back home.
So let's not pretend that travel is always fun. We don't spend 10 hours lost in the Louvre because we like it, and the view from the top of Machu Picchu probably doesn't make up for the hassle of lost luggage. (More often than not, I need a holiday after my holiday.)
We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.