Stepping along ancient cobbled stones, your senses flood with differing shades of ochre-painted houses and rainbows of flowers pouring from clay pots outside each doorway. Winding your way to the town center you anticipate the scrumptious meal and delicious wine that awaits you. You are captivated by this community full of work, play, art and life at its fullest. It’s hard to imagine that in the darkness of the middle ages, the world’s most visionary planners built towns like this one to promote health, happiness and productivity. As you stroll through the arched passageways of this beautiful Italian village you confirm their wisdom, as healthy and happy are exactly how you feel.
Whether this adventure is on your bucket list or conjures up an actual memory, you no doubt have experienced the amazing power of travel to literally light up your brain. Neuroscience research is revealing how profoundly health-giving travel can be, both in the moment and for years to come. And surprisingly, how you feel when you travel is a simple barometer for whether it is having a beneficial impact on your brain. The more you love what you are doing, the more you light up your brain.
Because the brain is a ‘use it or lose it’ proposition, cognitive function is highly dependent on whether we engage in a variety of interesting, fun, challenging activities that protect our brains from decline and disease. Travel enables us to do just that. Given that adult lives are often full of stress and everyday demands, travel becomes the perfect antidote. It provides a welcome change from routine, new places and people to spark our curiosity, and we can take time out to rest and relax. These positive experiences create powerful biological responses:
- Feeling good releases chemical neurotransmitters that result in lower heart rate, higher heart rate variability, lower stress hormones, better sleep, and lower risk for heart attacks and strokes.
- Travel by its very nature taps a wide range of challenges and experiences. When we explore a variety of activities, particularly if different from everyday life, new brain cells are built and all sorts of new connections occur between brain “networks”. These help us learn to speak a new language, play a new game, enjoy different foods, or figure out which train to catch. Drawing upon multiple and varied networks can even improve our senses, sharpen our thinking, improve decision-making, and enhance memory and resiliency.
- Through travel we have the opportunity to craft and enjoy activities and experiences that we love. But it’s important to go beyond the familiar. The deeper, richer, more emotionally meaningful the experience, the greater positive impact it has on your health and wellbeing. Activities that broaden or challenge our perspectives, that engage us with others in important ways, that drive empathy and caring – these are the gold nuggets waiting for discovery during our travels. If you are loving what you are doing you can be assured your brain is enjoying the rewards.
Perhaps the most potent health benefit from travel occurs after you get home! Travel is the gift that keeps on giving, because the brain prioritizes positive, meaningful experiences when choosing what to remember – and the more emotional, the more powerful is our memory of it. These memories last longer and trigger memories of other similar experiences. So we can relive our wonderful travel adventures over and over again with the same boost of feel good neurotransmitters. In fact, these biological boosts are so powerful they can overcome future stress and even reverse depression.
The combination of loving what you’re doing, exploring a variety of activities and deeply meaningful experiences while tapping multiple brain networks – these all add up to a virtual health bonanza in every travel adventure. Building a rich store of happy memories is a sign of both a well-lived life and a resilient brain.
So, before you take your next vacation do your brain a huge favor:
- Think carefully about your next travel adventure
- Choose places you love or are excited to go to
- Plan and anticipate with excitement and joy
- Find a balance between new, different and challenging activities, and those that create peace and restful relaxation
- Be curious, playful, caring
- Make real connections with your environment and its people
- Build empathy with others through acts of caring and service
- Most of all, love what you do and look for the joy in every moment
- Then when you get home, sit back and enjoy the memories as often as possible
Featured photo credit: JeniFoto via shutterstock.com