Why Creativity Requires “Travel”

by on June 1, 2010 | posted in Marketing

I came across an interesting article recently by Jonah Lehrer, titled “Why we travel”. The article postulates that new evidence is showing that “jumping on a plane will not only make you smarter, but more open-minded and creative.” For a little summary of what Lehrer discusses in the article, see below:

In fact, several new science papers suggest that getting away – and it doesn’t even matter where you’re going – is an essential habit of effective thinking. It’s not about a holiday, or relaxation, or sipping daiquiris on an unspoilt tropical beach: it’s about the tedious act itself, putting some miles between home and wherever you happen to spend the night.

A paragraph later, Lehrer continues:

The reason such travels are mentally 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. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are 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.

The breakthroughs of the article make perfect sense. Repetition and being “locked in” to our environment limits our creativity, and by breaking free of that on occasion, the sparks fly and innovative cognition is possible.

However, I don’t think the hypothesis is stated appropriately, and it locks people in to the idea that the physical concept of travel is what sparks creativity. Here, the “physical” act of travel means little.

The brains actual movement from one location to another doesn’t matter, it’s the neurological transfer of the familiar to the unfamiliar. We are very capable of “traveling” from the comfort of our own home.

Traveling for the brain, then, is moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar, which means no longer reading the same five blogs, or watching the same television shows, or talking to the same five people. Creativity is the innovative spark of our own experience rallying against freshness to create something new and cool and useful.

The Seth Godin Idea Train

People are infinitely curious about the Seth Godin “genius”. How does he constantly pump out day after day of great information and insights? We know, now – he constantly travels. Godin has stated during interviews that he spends most of his time “traveling”.

(Ideas) almost never come from reading the traditional blog posts or following the traditional Twitterers. It comes from seeing a movie, or interacting in a place that I’ve never been. If I’m on the road eating in another city, I will never ever go to a restaurant that I’ve been to before or has been recommended by the concierge. I dig deep into Chowhound and find a place or a cuisine I’ve never had before. If I am listening to music I spend half of the time listening to music I like and half the time listening to music I’ve never heard before.  If I’m driving in a town I will put on a radio station where they’re talking about stuff I don’t agree with. And confronting these edges in our culture is bound to create sparks and sparks turn into fires.

He reads constantly, and has his ear on the internet. When he goes to eat, he never goes to the same place. He’s not necessarily always in a new city (although I’m sure his fame draws him to unique locations), but he’s constantly traveling.

Undoubtedly, Godin is an extremely intelligent individual. But his blog thrives because he constantly allows his brain to travel, rather than fit within an eight-hour day filled with repetition as many of us are forced.

For lots of us, it may not be possible to replicate Godin’s ideasparks until we let go of our  40-hour work week. However, if we constantly look for fresh content on the internet, read tons of books, and go outside of comfort zones – even within our own cities – we have the incredible capacity to generate more ideas than we can possibly execute.

The greater point of Lehrer’s article is still true. Without our own city, there are only so many aspects of travel we can create. Our physical environment can be limited, and the randomness of culture and people are only so sparsed within a 50-mile radius.

To maximize creative potential, we must completely engross ourselves with travel, which means going somewhere completely new. Given the present power of the internet, though, the potential to travel in some sense can occur within any second of our lives.

Image credit goes to mopostal.

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