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Travel and adventure go hand in hand.
In literature, plenty of travel and adventure novels describe a journey or quest through unfamiliar territory: The Odyssey, Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, The Hobbit, On the Road (just to name a few)…
(The Odyssey is written in prose, so it’s not strictly a novel, but is still one of the oldest and most celebrated adventures of all time.)
For anyone going on a trip, exciting times are par for the course. Seeking out new experiences is seen as a rite of passage, and returning travellers often share how their travels have changed them profoundly. They’re not wrong: many research studies have found that travel has a measurable effect on cognitive abilities and personalities. This niche field, dubbed “travel psychology”, always seems to pique the interest of travel blogs and wannabe travellers. Science justifies both the cost and time required to satisfy our wanderlust, and certainly comes in handy when explaining your holiday to employers.
Can travel change your personality?
In recent years, claims that travel enhances creativity have been backed up by science. Neuroscientists believe that creativity is related to neuroplasticity, which describes the brain’s ability to generate and reorganise neural pathways. These pathways are influenced by many factors, including environment and habits. New sounds, smells, sights and other sensations could spark different synapses in the brain and hence refresh your mind.
Social psychologist Professor Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School explained to The Atlantic that travel can increase cognitive flexibility (the mind’s ability to jump between different ideas), which is a key component of creativity. However, there’s a catch. According to Galinsky, the key to these cognitive benefits is practicing “multicultural engagement, immersion and adaptation. Someone who lives abroad and doesn’t engage with the local culture will likely get less of a creative boost than someone who travels abroad and really engages in the local environment.”
Galinsky has carried out numerous studies on the connection between creativity and travel. One of his co-authored studies evaluated the creativity of high-end fashion houses (rated by trade journalists and independent buyers) and examined the correlation between the time the creative directors had spent abroad and creative output. The 2015 study, titled “Fashion with a foreign flair”, found that spending time abroad resulted in increased sartorial creativity. This study attracted a heap of media attention (understandably: if there’s one thing fashion houses don’t want to be seen as, it’s “provincial”).
Travelling not only enhances creativity, but has also been found to affect personality traits. In 2012, researchers studying a large sample of German university students examined how extended travel influences personality development. Before and after the study, participants were given a personality inventory, which evaluates the “Big Five” personality dimensions: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness and Emotional Stability.
Are different types of people more drawn to travel than others, you ask? Yes, according to this study. Participants who chose to study abroad generally scored higher in Extraversion traits compared to those who did not. Students who chose a one semester exchange tended to be higher in Conscientiousness, while those who chose a full-year exchange were higher in Openness to Experience than those who did not travel. Travelling resulted in a noticeable (although not dramatic) increase in Openness to Experience, Agreeableness and Emotional Stability.
These findings reflect Galinsky’s research into cross-cultural experiences and how they increase connections between people. “We found that when people had experiences traveling to other countries it increased what’s called generalized trust, or their general faith in humanity,” Galinsky says. “When we engage in other cultures, we start to have experience with different people and recognize that most people treat you in similar ways. That produces an increase in trust.”
Traveller identities and the engaged tourist
The concept of the engaged tourist is an important theme in contemporary tourism studies. Dr Tamara Young, Senior Lecturer and researcher in the Newcastle Business School, is co-author of the book Tourist Cultures: Identity, Place and the Traveller, which examines all the complexities of contemporary tourist cultures. Tourist Cultures focuses strongly on the active engagement of the tourist. The tourist is referred to as a ‘choraster’, a traveller who takes home an experience that imparts on the self. This is in contrast to the concept of tourist as a flâneur, a passive spectator completely detached from what they’re viewing (the literal translation is “a man who wanders around observing society”).
Tamara carries out multidisciplinary research into tourism, and one of her diverse research interests is youth travel. Tamara has carried out extensive research into youth travel in Australia, focusing on the interactions of young adults with travelled cultures and the significance of these experiences for informal education and lifelong learning. Her research has also been successful in gaining government funding for short term mobility programs. You can find out more about international engagement programs at the University of Newcastle, such as the New Colombo Plan Mobility Program, here.
Youth travel is also a core research area for Western Sydney University Sociology and Tourism Studies lecturer Dr Amie Matthews. Amie caught the travel bug herself during a backpacking trip around Australia after her first year of uni. This led to a stint of backpacking and working in the UK and Europe, just as she was about to embark on her Honours year in Sociology and Anthropology. “At the time I was very interested in youth and alternative cultures and gradually I saw my ‘two’ worlds align,” says Amie.
Amie’s PhD (awarded in 2008 by the University of Newcastle) examined the role of independent travel in the lives of young people and the impacts of this contemporary rite of passage on individual identity, relationship and self-perceptions. “Essentially I was interested in looking at the role that travel played in their lives, the kinds of activities and behaviours they engaged in while abroad, and what those engagements meant to them as individuals and socio-culturally,” explains Amie.
“For many of those involved in my research, it was clear that the travel space provided a sense of freedom (from home, from relationships, from people that knew them and places they’d already been and seen) and a sense of increased authenticity. So probably the most significant impact travel has is on identity. In my research it was very clear that how young people saw themselves and those around them, as well as how they saw ‘home’ was transformed (in ways both big and small) as a result of their travel experiences.” Amie is currently exploring these themes in a book entitled: An Ethnography of the Backpacking Culture: Life on the Road, which is due to be published by Routledge in 2021.
Travel and the history of movement control
Travelling for pleasure is by no means a new phenomenon, but its accessibility to all levels of society (apart from the upper stratosphere) most certainly is. From the mid-17th to 18th century, it became popular for European upperclassmen to complete their education with a period of foreign travel. This was known as The Grand Tour and was both extremely exclusive and expensive, and hence reserved for the sons of the aristocracy. For British travellers, the most popular destination was France via the crossing from Dover to Calais. From here, travellers might proceed to the Alps and travel to the Mediterranean by boat. Their tour might also include Spain, Portugal, Germany, Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Baltic. However, the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) put a dampener on the Grand Tour and stopped most foreign travels.
University of Newcastle Associate Professor Dr Jesper Gulddal from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences is an expert on modern movement control, which began in the late 18th century. Jesper explains that movement control restrictions were an important instrument of policy for kingdoms and governments and were a method of expressing sovereignty. They allowed rulers to impose fiscal policies and tax borders, as well as controlling the movement of people who were considered suspicious, particularly nomads, the wandering poor and Jewish people.
In the 18th and 19th century, the motivation for travelling outside the British Empire mostly included commerce, trade and colonialism, as well as tourism and education (for the upper classes, at least). The advent of rail travel was a turning point in the democratisation of travel, both in terms of increased freedoms and reduced costs. Jesper describes how technological advances outpaced bureaucracy in the mid-19th century, by which time a train journey from Germany to France would take only a few hours. However, the paperwork to undertake this short trip might require two weeks.
“The paperwork restrictions became a burden and an unacceptable imposition on the freedoms of citizens,” says Jesper. “There was an ideological component as well: the second half of the 19th century was the height of liberalism, where ideas of personal freedom, free mobility and free trade became dominant. Technological developments led to globalisation, with an increased flow of people, goods, capital and ideas across borders.”
Jesper has been working on a book on movement control – passports, borders and immigration control – from the point of view of literary history. He describes how the novels of Jules Verne (1828-1905), such as Around the World in Eighty Days, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and From the Earth to the Moon, reflect the zeitgeist of the time. “They show the enormous fascination with technology as a way of solving problems. The basic attraction of those novels is the fantasy of human life released by technology from physical constraints and given the power of unlimited mobility.” And for us, he adds, “there’s the quaintness of this fantasy from a present-day perspective – the idea, for example, of travelling to the moon in a cannonball kitted out like Victorian drawing room.”