by Jonah Lehrer
It's almost Labor Day, which means that many of us are about to engage in the great American ritual of sitting in traffic on the way to a large body of water. I insist on going somewhere every year, which means that every year I wonder if a crowded beach is really worth six hours on a crowded highway.
This year, however, my journey has a scientific justification. When my wife looks at me in frustration after yet another crappy fast food meal consumed in the parking lot of a rest stop, here's what I'm going to say: vacation has important psychological benefits. This tedious drive is necessary - not for me, but for my brain.
Look, for instance, at a recent experiment led by the psychologist Lile Jia at the Indiana University at Bloomington. He randomly divided a few dozen undergrads into two groups, both of which were asked to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. (This is known as a creative generation task.) One group of students was told that the task was developed by Indiana University students studying abroad in Greece (the distant condition), while the other group was told that the task was developed by Indiana students studying in Indiana (the near condition). At first glance, it’s hard to believe that such a slight and seemingly irrelevant difference would alter the performance of the subjects. Why would it matter where the task was invented?
Nevertheless, Jia found a striking difference between the two groups: when students were told that the task was imported from Greece, they came up with significantly more transportation possibilities. Because the source of the problem was far away, the subjects felt less constrained by their local transport options; they didn’t just think about getting around in Indiana, they thought about getting around all over the world, and even in deep space.
In a second study, Jia found that people were much better at solving a series of insight puzzles when told that the puzzles came all the way from California, and not from down the hall. These subjects considered a far wider range of alternatives, which made them more likely to solve the challenging brain teasers.
The reason such travels are useful involves a quirk of cognition, in which problems that feel “close" - and the closeness can be physical, temporal or even emotional - get contemplated in a more concrete manner. (This is known as construal level theory.) As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are delicately constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful -it allows us to focus on the facts at hand - it also inhibits our imagination.
What does this have to do with travel? When we escape from the place we spend most of our time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas we’d previously suppressed. Furthermore, this more relaxed sort of cognition comes with practical advantages, especially when we’re trying to solve difficult problems.
The problem, of course, is that most of our problems are local - people in Indiana are worried about Indiana, not the eastern Mediterranean or California. This leaves two options: 1) find a clever way to trick ourselves into believing that our nearby dilemma is actually distant or 2) go someplace far away and then think about our troubles back home. Given the limits of self-deception - we can’t even tickle ourselves properly - travel seems like the more practical possibility.
Of course, it’s not enough to simply get on a plane or drive a few hundred miles to the beach: if we want to experience the creative benefits of vacation, then we have to rethink the raison d’etre of vacation . Most people, after all, escape to the seashore so they don't have to think about those troubles they left behind. But here’s the ironic twist: our mind is most likely to solve our most stubborn problems while getting a sunburn far away from home. So instead of napping on the beach, or reading the latest issue of US Weekly, we should be mulling over those domestic riddles we just can't solve.