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?