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There’s something incredibly relaxing about going back to a beloved spot again and again, but that consistency is unlikely to aid self-improvement. In contrast, an unfamiliar place challenges your brain in new and interesting ways.
Firstly, it increases your psychological flexibility. Every culture has its own traditions, customs and protocols, and some of them will naturally be at odds with what you’re used to. As you process and make sense of all these new details, your ability to go with the flow and navigate unfamiliar situations is strengthened. One 2013 study examined the affects of foreign travel on 485 American adults, and found that visiting a greater number of countries, and becoming more culturally immersed during those visits, had lasting effects on the participant’s ability to navigate new scenarios with the appropriate verbal and non-verbal emotional responses. They became more culturally adaptable.
The same study also suggested, perhaps unsurprisingly, that travel makes people more empathic. Participants were less likely to judge somebody based on superficial aspects like their gender, race, age etc.—perhaps because unfamiliar surroundings increase our brain’s ability to absorb new impressions instead of defaulting to stereotypes. They were also better able to deduce whether a person’s behavior stemmed from their temperament or the situational context they found themselves in.
A change of scenery can also inspire fresh ideas. In one study, researchers from the University of Utah and the University of Kansas took 56 participants on a backpacking trip into the wilderness, away from technology and all the distractions of home. They had 24 people take a creative problem-solving test the day before the trip commenced, and 32 complete it on the fourth day of the hike. The latter group scored 50 per cent better on the test, which the psychologists attributed to the benefits of taking a break in nature (exercise also has noteworthy benefits for creative brainpower).
So there you have it. Forgoing your go-to vacation spot and actively seeking culture shock will be mentally rewarding and more conducive to personal growth.