Saturday, 25 January 2014 22:10  /  Thoughts

Traveling Readies the Mind for Creativity

I recently returned from one of the best trips of my life - traveling with 7 of my best friends in Japan and Thailand for a month. I absolutely fell in love with Tokyo, and it wasn't just because I'm Japanese and my mother was born there. I loved the similarities to New York – high fashion, unparalleled architecture, great public transportation, but it was also much cleaner, safer, quieter and more polite than NYC. Now don't get me wrong, I love the Big Apple, but I don't think I could actually live there for more than a year, and it would most likely be looked at as an experiment. Tokyo on the other hand, I felt an instant connection with from day one, and if I ever get a career opportunity to move over there for a few years, I'm going to jump on it.

Now that I'm back to real life and feeling refreshed, inspired and energetic, I can't help but know what I have thought and assumed for years now – traveling readies the mind for creativity. But it doesn't have to be a month-long vacation with your best friends - a change of scenery, even just a short business trip to a new city - it stimulates your brain in the same way. For me, getting out of my comfort zone geographically has turned out to be a great mechanism for getting my mind dialed-in and into my comfort zone creatively.

There are a few different ways to think about this, so I'll go one-by-one through these. From a business perspective, one of the obvious advantages of traveling is being able to see what is successful in country A that could be applied in country B. There were so many things that appeared to be successful in Tokyo that I felt could potentially be successful in Portland. So from that perspective, I think there are a lot of opportunities there, and that's certainly one of the business advantages of traveling. BUT, there are definitely other, more profound benefits to being exposed to other experiences and new ways of life - many of which are only now being disentangled by science. Not only can travel make you more successful in business, it is now proven that travel can make you fundamentally more creative. The question is – exactly how much of an affect does travel actually have on a person's creativity? To answer that, I needed to do some digging, and here are some of the things I found on the subject.

Adam Galinsky, a psychologist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, recently completed an eight-year study that found that people who could identify with two cultures, rather than just one, had higher promotion rates and better reputations, were more entrepreneurial and produced more innovations at work. Biculturalism, it seems, is good for business. "What we've clearly shown," Galinsky says, "is that the more someone adapts to their [foreign] environment, the more benefit they'll get on long-term creativity." There are many reasons for this, but the most crucial is that adapting to another culture results in more "integrative complexity," meaning the ability to consider and combine multiple perspectives. This is a key ingredient to both creativity and success.

One study of the letters of U.S. Civil War generals analyzed them for density of ideas and perspectives, and found that higher levels of integrative complexity correlated with battlefield success: Robert E. Lee was far more complex than the generals he beat, and less complex than the only general who beat him, Ulysses S. Grant. Immersing oneself in another culture can lead to this kind of thinking. But according to Galinsky, just showing up is not enough. Your creative benefit depends on how open you are to learning new sets of rules and norms. And the people who get the most benefit are those who identify with their host and their home culture, rather than one or the other. "The best mind-set is one of curiosity on two levels," says Galinsky. "One is trying to look for differences - looking to see when things are different from your home culture. And secondly, looking to see why those differences exist. It's not just thinking about the host culture, it's thinking about the host culture in relation to the home culture. It's that comparison process." The exact neural switches this mindset flips remain obscure, since there has been virtually no neuroimaging research on the effects of travel or biculturalism. But, there has been a solid amount of research on creativity itself.

It seems that most of us outside of the creative industry think of 'creativity' as that simple eureka moment when an idea is born, and that's it, but it's much more complicated. For example, Galinsky defines creativity as "the ability to come up with ideas that are both novel and useful." Science writer Jonah Lehrer, in his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, defines creativity as the "ability to imagine what never existed." Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, defines it as a five-step process that involves preparation (immersion in a subject), incubation (subconscious processing), insight (the "aha" moment), evaluation (judging the quality) and elaboration (the 99 percent perspiration). In Imagine, Lehrer gives a good overview of current neuroscience on creativity, much of which has focused on the insight phase. One finding is that on the right side of the brain is a small section called the anterior superior temporal gyrus, which shows a burst of activity just before an insight. The region's exact purpose remains unclear, but it seems to play a role in helping the mind make "distant and original" connections. Also important is the role of alpha waves, which seem to be related to a relaxed mental state. People with low alpha wave levels are unable to solve insight puzzles, even with hints. But with a steady rhythm of alpha wave, psychologist Joydeep Bhattacharya can predict up to eight seconds in advance when a person will have an insight. That is just one of many reasons, Lehrer says, that travel (or more accurately, a vacation) can give a creative boost. "The assumption is that travel is at best an inconvenience," Lehrer says," and that we put up with it on the way to drink daiquiris on the beach, or on the way to a business conference. But even going through the act of travel itself is beneficial, and the research suggests that travel does come with real cognitive benefits. If you spend your entire life in a cubicle, that cubicle constrains your thinking."

Another reason is what Lehrer calls the "outsider effect," which is part of why so many young scientists make breakthroughs: They aren't yet steeped in the accepted knowledge of their field. "The outsider effect," Lehrer says, "has to do with our assumption that when you've got a difficult creative problem, you always want to give it to the guy who's the most inside expert. And that's probably a mistake. Knowledge can leave blind spots. It traps us in its web of assumptions, and it gets harder to come up with really new solutions. So one of the virtues of travel is that it turns us into temporary outsiders."

Lehrer gives the example of Ruth Handler, who was traveling in Switzerland in the 1950s when she saw a doll called Bild Lilli, a curvaceous adult female. Handler had no idea this was a men's sexy gag gift, and a few years later, she managed to convince her husband (an executive at Mattel) that it would make a great new doll for girls to imagine themselves as adults. Barbie was born. If Handler had known what she didn't know, Barbie might never have been.

When we travel, we enter a new world full of ideas and possibilities, and the key is to know how to receive them. To let them change you so you can change the world around you. "The key thing is having an open mind and being willing to try local customs," says Galinsky, "like eating with a local family instead of going to a tourist restaurant. Imagine two people. One lives in Paris for six months, but only hangs out with Americans. Another travels to Paris for three weeks, but spends the entire time adapting to the local environment. The person who travels and adapts should be more likely to benefit when it comes to creativity than the person who lived there and didn't. It's not just eating local food and seeing sights you read about it in local guides. It's putting yourself in a position to see how locals eat that food. It's going to the places that are off the grid and only being able to find out about them from the locals. It's taking a deep dive into the culture.' Lehrer advises travelers to stay relaxed, but engaged with the world around them. "Moments of insight arrive when we least expect them," he says. "When you travel, you might just be at your most creative."

So for me, it was a month in Tokyo and Thailand, but that was only my most recent adventure. I have taken much shorter and less planned vacations within the U.S. that inspired, energized and relaxed me all at the same time. Regardless of the destination, the big idea here is just to get out there and create new experiences for yourself that will evolve your perspective and open you up to new breakthroughs. Plus, if you are feeling frustrated with a project you are working on, or have just been in an inspirational rut at work lately, a vacation is probably just what you need anyway. So - what trip will lead you to your creative breakthrough? Whatever it ends up being, try to live in the moment and enjoy every second of the experience. And trust me - you, your family, your friends and most of all - your CREATIVITY will benefit from you being revitalized. A little traveling goes a long way.



EXTRA. Your Brain on Travel: How A Change in Scenery can Inspire Business Innovation.


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