I never feel more enlightened, more inspired, more educated than when I travel, especially to far-flung and exotic places. Without fail, I come back a different person, feeling enriched and full of gratitude for what life has to offer.
That travelling can broaden our horizons, both literally and figuratively speaking, is nothing new. As Mark Twain once famously said, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness." But can it also improve our mental capacities? Scientists in Germany, who conducted a recent study of how our minds respond to new experiences that come with travel and exploration, say yes. And it does not only apply to humans. Even the tiny brains of lab mice seem to benefit from roaming around.
For the study, the researchers kept 60 adult, female, genetically identical mice in a large enclosure that provided what they called an "enriched environment" where multiple objects and arrangements challenged the animals to interact with unfamiliar and changing surroundings. They divided them in three groups, one of which they exposed to the richest environment, providing numerous learning opportunities; the second group was limited to smaller, much less stimulating spaces; the third was used as the control group. To measure the amount of encounters with new events each group faced for the duration of the experiment, a total of 105 days, the mice were outfitted with tracking devices and monitored with sensors placed all around them.
As it turned out, the group that was allowed the most exploratory activity clearly developed a greater amount of hippocampal neurogenesis, meaning they showed significantly more activity in the hippocampus, a region in the brain that is primarily responsible for learning, than their less adventurous, more homebound counterparts.
"Those who move around a lot have many more experiences," said Dr. Gerd Kempermann, a neurologist and one of the authors of the study, in an interview with the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. "The brains of active individuals produce additional neurons in anticipation of more experiences to come and to deal with them effectively."
What are the implications for us humans, if any? "If experiences and lifestyle choices have such a great influence on the individual structure of the brain in mice, chances are that this happens for us even more so," Dr. Kempermann added.
Other clinical studies have long suggested that stimulating the mind through lifelong learning can slow down, if not prevent, age-related mental decline like memory loss and dementia. A high level of education acquired early in life seems to be of advantage as well because already established neural connections become reinforced with later learning, a process that is known as "neural redundancy."
Obviously, filling one's passport with more stamps by itself does not add more IQ points. But openness and curiosity, the willingness to question old views and convictions, and seeing the world from different angles can keep us young at heart, which includes the mind.
If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading "Healthy Aging: Exercising the Body Benefits the Mind, Too" and "Modern Day Travel."