It’s not like we needed another excuse to travel but getting away from it all (whatever ‘it’ is for you) can put you in a frame of mind that’s more conducive to creative breakthroughs.
Writers from Ernest Hemingway to Anaïs Nin and artists from Gustav Klimt to Edvard Munch drew inspiration and, arguably, some of their best work, from their time on the road.
Whole exhibitions, like Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, have even been curated to explore the creativity that can be generated by travel.
“I love stepping off a plane and not understanding the language being spoken or why people are dressed a certain way,” says Saar. “Right away you’re on an adventure.”
Yet science is only starting to measure the myriad ways that travel boosts your creativity.
Even brief getaways replenish the cognitive and physical resources that stressful jobs, busy lives and jam-packed routines strip away.
That’s because people who are perpetually under the pump slip into habitual, well-rehearsed behaviour patterns, writes researcher Colin Martindale, in The Handbook of Creativity.
Their thinking becomes convergent – focussed on speed, logic and getting the ‘right’ answer.
This is the exact opposite of what’s needed for creative problem-solving, a slow and often messy process.
Activities like dashing in and out of meetings, ticking items off to-do lists and striving to meet deadlines or key performance indicators might make people feel busy and productive.
But they’re the antithesis of the unstructured, floaty state of mind during which new and useful ideas bubble to the surface.
That state might otherwise be described as incubation, which occurs when conscious attention is diverted away from the task at hand.
It’s that crucial stage in the creative process right before illumination, which is when your new idea flits tantalisingly into sight.
Goal-directed behaviour will rarely get you there, but daydreaming, mind-wandering, napping and just letting your unconscious riff will often lead to surprising new insights.
All the more reason to book that hot stones massage in a relaxing beachside location …
The role of relaxation in promoting creativity has long been assumed, rather than understood.
But brain imaging studies are starting to unpick what creatives have long intuited.
One study found that increased alpha wave activity in the right hemisphere was associated with increased levels of originality in a test of creativity.
Another identified a positive correlation between creative performance and the grey matter volume of the default mode network – a set of interacting brain regions that is active during rest.
It’s the counterpart of the cognitive control network which lights up when people are using executive functions such as attention, planning or working memory, to drive behaviours towards a specific goal.
“These findings support the idea that the default mode network is important in creativity, and provide neurostructural support for the idea that unconscious forms of information processing are important in creativity,” the authors write.
When I’m researching a destination, or planning a trip, I’m generally in that goal-directed, target-fixated frame of mind, labouring hard to come up with different angles, pitches and perspectives.
But when I’m away on assignment, deliciously immersed in the sights and sounds of a new locale, the biggest challenge can be keeping track of all the fresh story ideas that flood in.
On a side note, taking regular vacations in order to promote relaxation will even boost the odds that you’ll live long enough to see your creative projects through to their completion.
Two long-term epidemiological studies report that not taking vacations for a prolonged time is linked to a higher risk of heart attacks, cardiovascular disease, and premature coronary death.
Some aspects of life on the road – missed connections, slow queues, lost luggage – can provoke frustration, boredom, resentment and all other sorts of sad.
Overall, however, travel tends to bolster levels of happiness, well-being and life satisfaction.
Positive emotions, in turn, encourage the sort of exploration, play and learning that is central to creativity, researchers claim.
For example, a 2014 study found that experiential purchases (money spent on doing) tended to provide more enduring happiness than material purchases (money spent on having).
Another study found that just thinking about future trips sparks happiness and improved well-being.
It’s not even necessary to whip out a passport to reap the benefits.
A 2020 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that introducing new and diverse experiences as part of your daily routine was linked to enhanced happiness.
This relationship was associated with greater activity in the hippocampus and the striatum—the parts of the brain that process novelty and reward.
“These results suggest a reciprocal link between the novel and diverse experiences we have during our daily exploration of our physical environments and our subjective sense of well-being,” said co-author Catherine Hartley.
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change, reorganise and grow through experience.
It’s consistent with the notion that immersion in new environments can stimulate fresh neural connections, enhancing cognitive flexibility which, according to one of the field’s original researchers, lies at the core of creativity.
For instance, a 2010 study found that multicultural learning experiences could boost people’s ability to solve problems in multiple ways and help overcome the sort of “functional fixedness” which limits innovation.
Later research conducted by rating the fashion collections of the world’s top fashion houses noted clear links between creative output and time spent abroad.
Brands helmed by creative directors who’d lived and worked in countries other than their own produced collections which were independently rated more creative.
Coming soon: Why changing how you make a sandwich can boost your creativity
Other research demonstrated that workers displayed high levels of cognitive flexibility after returning home from a long summer holiday and generated more diverse ideas afterwards.
The sounds of foreign language, the tastes of exotic food, the sight of unfamiliar landscapes and the experience of different cultural habits “may violate well-established cognitive schemas and increase the number and the breadth of cognitive elements available for association,” the authors note.
Effects were most pronounced during the holiday period and faded out within a week of resuming work.
On one hand, that seems a shame. On the other, it provides all the more reason to start planning that creativity-boosting next trip.