How Travel Enhances Creativity
Rohan Barnett was backpacking his way through Mexico when he saw something that changed his life: cacao, the magical seeds that become chocolate. The elliptical pods dangling from small trees seemed impossibly far removed from the foil-wrapped squares he knew back home in Ireland.
Barnett was surprised to learn that the Mayans had been growing cacao long before Europeans arrived, and that they drank it as a cold beverage with a spice called annatto, which turned their mouths red.
As he moved on in his travels, cacao kept percolating in the back of his mind. About a year later, he found himself in France, where he stumbled into an Aztec-themed chocolate shop.
“[The theme] was just at a superficial level,” Barnett recalls, “like the decorations of the store.” Barnett, who had worked for a technology company in Mexico (as well as Canada, Brazil, Singapore and Australia) and whose wife was Mexican, thought he could do better. “I had the idea of creating chocolate and selling it with the complete story about chocolate—not just as an indulgence, but as a product that comes from the Mayan jungle and was consumed by the Mayans before the Spanish even knew about it.”
And so, taking a hidden story from one part of the world, he blended it with a retail concept from another, and focused on the world as his market. His company, Ah Cacao Real Chocolate, currently has 35 employees and more than $1 million in sales.
“For me personally,” Barnett says, “the advantage of traveling is just to see what is successful in country A that could be applied in country B. I think there’s a lot of opportunities there.”
That’s certainly one of the advantages of traveling. But there are other, more profound benefits to being exposed to other ways of life, many of which are only now being disentangled by science. Not only can travel make you more successful in business but it can make you fundamentally more creative.
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 both 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 precise 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 great deal of research on creativity itself.
Most of us think of creativity as that simple eureka moment when an idea is born, but it’s much more complicated. 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 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. It’s putting yourself in a position to see how locals eat that food. 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.”
Frank Bures’ work has appeared in Harper’s, Esquire, Outside, Bicycling and Wired. He is based in Minneapolis.