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Travel and Creativity

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travel and creativity

Hemingway wrote while in Cuba, and Gauguin painted in Tahiti; Mark Twain wrote his only best selling book during his lifetime “Innocents Abroad” on board a ship. And in the 1940s, on a Greyhound bus in the middle of the night in Kansas, Princeton physics researcher Freeman Dyson cracked the problem of quantum electrodynamics - the theory of radiation and atoms – that others had been trying to solve for years.

Creative geniuses from all fields seemed to know something about travel that made it indispensable to their work, something that boosted their creativity by changing their thinking. For many creative giants, traveling resulted in discoveries that defined their lives – and careers.

Now psychologists have started studying the benefits of travel, tackling the question of how it appears to increase creative thinking. By studying psychological distance, which takes place geographically, temporally (over time) and also perceptually – or through one’s mind - they seek answers on how distance aids not only the eminent and famous for their creative contributions, but everyone’s creativity.

Lile Jia, a PhD graduate student in psychology at Indiana University (IU) at Bloomington, investigated how the concept of distance affected the creative cognition and insights of students on the IU campus. Other researchers have studied how psychological distance in reference to “time away” from a problem increases the likelihood of solving problems, but Jia sought to show that simply placing oneself in a traveling “mindset” might also affect creative problem solving.

Two Creativity Studies:

Study #1

In one study, he formulated a creative generation task asking participants to list as many types or modes of transportation as possible. But he divided the participants into two groups:

  • Group One – The Distant Condition. Participants were told that Indiana University students studying abroad in Greece developed the task of generating different modes of transportation.
  • Group Two – The Near Condition. Participants were told that students living on campus at Indiana University developed the task of generating different modes of transportation.

In the journal article “Lessons from a Faraway Land: The Effect of Spatial Distance on Creative Cognition,” Jia reported a striking difference between these two groups. Those participants who thought that individuals in Greece developed the task came up with many more transportation options – and many more creative options – than those who thought the task was developed in Indiana.

Those in group one – those generating more creative responses not only listed the usual ways of getting around, such as buses, trains and planes. But as they imagined the source of the problem coming from Greece, a distant country far from Indiana, they listed horses, scooters, bicycles, and spaceships. In other words, they not only considered the local environment of Bloomington, Indiana when deriving their answers, they used Greece, other parts of the world, and even outer space.

Study #2

In a second study, also appearing in the Journal of Social Psychology article, Jia administered puzzles or brain teasers to three different groups of students:

  • Group One. The first group of students were told that the series of brainteasers came from a California research institute.
  • Group Two. The researchers told a second group of students that the puzzles came from down the hall in a building on campus.
  • Group Three. The third group of students didn’t receive any information on the origin of the brain teasers.

As in the first study, participants in group one, or those that were told that the brain teasers came from California did the best at solving the brainteasers. They solved more of the problems than those in either the Indiana group or the control group.

In summary, Jia concluded from both studies that increasing psychological distance, even by simply stating that the source of the problem came from a distance away, increased creative thoughts and insights. And that distance can be artificially produced simply by changing the way individuals think about a problem – or their perceptions of the problem.

For decades, psychologists have been interested in how geographical and temporal (time) distance affects creativity. In fact, a large amount of research exists on construal level theory (CLT), a theory that states the closer individuals are to things, problems, and ideas, such as being in the “here and now” and “up close” with problems, the more concretely, literally, and unimaginatively they think about these problems. The theory states that by getting far away from problems or issues, even if it’s just a perceptual distance, the more abstractly individuals think.

Jia’s research definitely builds on and adds to the body of research on CLT. And it helps explain why travel is important not only for physical and mental health but for creativity as well.

The Benefits of Breaking the Routine

Vacation signifies time away from work and stress, a needed break for rest and relaxation. Most individuals consider it a break in the routine, a time for not thinking of anything closely related to the problems and concerns of their everyday environment.

Yet it’s exactly this “break in routine” that proves so beneficial for creativity. In other words, while individuals stare out the car window as they travel the winding roads of mountains, or sit sipping cocktails beachside, they often have those “aha” moments or creative breakthroughs to problems they’ve been trying to solve for days, months, or even years.

Everyday habits and routines constrain mental thinking, according to psychologists like Jia who study creativity. But spending time in different environments and cultures actually broadens and opens up thinking as unused neural networks within the brain fire and respond – in ways they wouldn’t respond if sitting back in the office or driving the same road home each evening.

In a television interview with Charlie Rose, developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik likened this type of brain activity to a baby’s brain.

By adulthood, individuals have learned how to “dampen down” most areas of their brains in order to use one area to specifically focus on one thing. But babies and young children haven’t yet developed the ability to pay attention intently on one thing, becoming captivated and enthralled by multiple stimuli, spreading their attention “all over the place.”

When adults step into a foreign, unknown culture, the firing of neural networks occurs over the entire brain. The areas of the brain that adults have for so long dampened down again become saturated with neurochemicals, and processing takes place similar to processing that occurs in a baby’s brain.

Obviously, adults must be able to pay attention, Gropnik said, but all “adults have the potential to continue to experience the world as children do.” Curiosity is central to human experience, and one way to increase curiosity is through foreign travel.

The Benefits of Taking a Trip

  • Three out of four executives believe that vacations prevent burnout (78%) or that vacations improve their job performance (75%).
  • Two out of three executives believe that vacations improve their creativity (68%).
  • Travelers have a 25% increase in performance on vigilance tests after returning from vacation. Travelers aged 45 or older show a 50% increase in performance.
  • Annual vacations reduce an individual’s heart attack risk by 50%.
  • More than half of employed Americans (53%) state that they feel more connected with their families after returning from vacation.
  • Simply thinking about or anticipating vacation travel increases positive feelings about one’s family, economic situation, and health.
  • While on vacation, travelers rate their overall health one point higher (on a scale of 1 to 5) while on vacation. They also get three times more deep sleep after their vacation and sleep almost 20 minutes longer after their vacation.

Living Abroad

The studies of two other psychology researchers have taken a slightly different stance on foreign travel and creativity, focusing instead on living abroad.

William W. Maddux of INSEAD, a business school in France, and Adam D. Galinsky of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, stated that a study they conducted showed that students who had lived abroad performed better on puzzles and problems than those who hadn’t lived in a foreign country.

Their study also appearing in the Journal of Social Psychology in the article “Cultural borders and mental barriers: The relationship between living abroad and creativity” showed that those who had lived abroad performed better on the following tasks:

  • a puzzle that gave the students some items and required them to affix a candle to a wall without spilling the wax;
  • a problem that required creative negotiation skills;
  • a problem that required identifying a missing word with three clue words.

Open-minded thinking was a main reason these students performed better on puzzles and problems, Maddux and Galinsky hypothesized. This type of thinking takes form in foreign countries as individuals realize that there are many different – and valid - ways of living in the world. There isn’t one right way or viewpoint, and a single issue or problem often has multiple viewpoints or solutions.

Living abroad also presents multiple challenges, such as figuring out transportation schedules for buses and trains, finding reasonable ways to shop and cook given a country’s markets or lack of grocery stores, and understanding cultural customs. Many of these challenges don’t affect those who simply travel to other countries through planned tours, or are only in a foreign country for a short time period.

More Research

As with many new research areas involving creativity, Maddux and Galinsky caution that more research needs to take place on creativity and living abroad, and creativity and travel, before scientists can make any definitive conclusions.

Yet researchers today are getting closer to uncovering why “distance” in terms of geography, time, or perception, or actually living abroad, leads to better creative thinking and outcomes.

Those desiring to study the psychology of creativity have many fields available to pursue this passion, including: Human Growth and Development, Cognitive Psychology, Social Psychology, Educational Psychology, and Media Psychology.

To become a researcher in psychology, usually a PhD is required. However, some schools offer certificates in creativity studies. Contact schools who offer psychology programs for more information.

Creativity Leads to Self-fulfillment

Psychologists want to know what types of thinking leads to creativity, for all types of people, in order to help people live better, more satisfying, and mentally healthy lives.

Those studying the psychology of creativity believe that this key component of cognition is significant for understanding how entire societies advance and move into the future. Creativity solves problems such as how to help those in developing nations start businesses so that they can support and feed themselves. Creativity offers solutions to problems such as global warming. It provides options for solving economic recessions, and even war and national conflict.

Creativity, in other words, resides not only in the imagination of a few gifted individuals, but within groups, in entire cultures and countries. Despite the fact that creativity is relatively new to psychological study, only gaining momentum during the second half of the 20th century, psychologists in all areas understand its significance – and romance.

At the start of his book, “Creativity Flow And The Psychology of Discovery and Invention,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states that creativity is the central source of meaning for the entire human race.

Creativity is essential, he states, because it is uniquely human. Humans share 98% of their genetics with chimpanzees. The 2% that separates humans from apes stems from human abilities to think creatively, and to learn from these creative pursuits resulting in language, values, artistic expression, scientific understanding, and technology. All of these endeavors make human life interesting, separating humans from apes.

The second important reason to study creativity, according to Csikszentmihalyi, the former chair of the psychology department at the University of Chicago, and considered an expert on the psychology of creativity, focuses on the quality of life itself.

When involved with creativity, he states, individuals feel as if they are living more fully than during any other part of their lives.

“Perhaps only sex, sports, music, and religious ecstasy – even when these experiences remain fleeting and leave no trace – provide as profound a sense of being part of an entity greater than ourselves.”

For psychologists like Csikszentmihalyi , it’s not paradoxical that creativity appears so easy to define and yet so difficult at the same time. For these researchers, that paradox fits perfectly with the nature of creativity.

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