“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”
One morning last week, I was having breakfast at our kitchen table when a New York Times story about discovering the fossilized remains of a “monster” prehistoric penguin caught my eye. Intrigued, I clicked on the page, but as soon as I reached the second paragraph, my mind took off on its own journey, racing across the Pacific at lightning speed.
The penguin fossils had been discovered by a paleontologist at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, a place Herb and I had visited almost exactly five years ago. Suddenly, instead of reading about the penguin discovery, I found myself completely engrossed in my memories of that exquisite day – the stunning red Māori gate on the museum’s terrace, the misty view of Wellington Harbour, the way the wind felt on my face.
Had I not traveled there, I’m fairly certain I would have glossed over the museum’s difficult-to-pronounce name without any understanding of its Māori roots. And I surely would have finished reading the article much more quickly!
I’ve also experienced this mind-traveling phenomenon when a place I’ve visited appears in a radio or television news story. Even when the news isn’t so positive, that additional nugget of understanding creates an invisible portal, and for a brief moment I’m transported there. Watching recent news reports from Russia – with occasional glimpses of Moscow’s Grand Kremlin Palace – have caused Herb and me to give each other knowing looks that trigger a memory-loop from the surreal summer day when we stood by those gilded doors. How taking photographs wasn’t allowed and then it was…the woman who embarrassed everyone by wanting to leave…our fabulously delightful guide Ludmilla.
Every time, without fail, the portal opens.
My reaction to all of this made me wonder about the impact of travel experiences on our brains. What is it about visiting somewhere that leaves such a powerful impression that it can interrupt what we are reading or listening to or watching? Surely the opportunities to travel are elixirs for our minds as well as our spirits.
It turns out that there is a wealth of scientific evidence that supports the positive impact of travel on our brain health. In 1964, neuroscience professor Dr. Marian Diamond, who had studied Albert Einstein’s brain, produced the first evidence of the brain’s plasticity – the ability to change and improve its connections through enriching environmental experiences. In Dr. Diamond’s study, laboratory rats raised in enriched environments with toys and other rats proved to have thicker cerebral cortices and more synaptic connections than rats raised in bare settings.
A vox.com article called “Your brain on travel” relates this enrichment to travel:
“Different brains’ synapses are sparked when humans are exposed to new foods, smells, tastes, and sensations within their environment. Traveling is one way humans can potentially develop new synaptic connections and transform archaic ways of comprehending.”
The article goes on to explore studies supporting the positive impact of travel on our creative thinking as well as our cognitive health. I love the quote from neuroscientist Dr. Michel Merzenich, who said that “people who travel to new places, keep learning languages and continue to experience new things into old age are far less likely to develop cognitive decay.”
As for that prehistoric monster penguin, the fossilized remains were identified as belonging to two different penguins. The larger one is named Kumimanu (Māori for “monster” and “bird”) and the smaller one is called Petradyptes (“rock diver”). They roamed the New Zealand coastline nearly 60 million years ago and are the heaviest penguins known to science.
Ah, penguins. That reminds me of the time in Antarctica…