Whether they are enjoying a relaxing cruise, a trip to an exotic country or a simple journey through the woods to Grandma’s house, most travelers readily agree that escaping daily routines and surroundings, even for a short time, improves their mental health. What may be less obvious is that new scenery and new activities also strengthen their brain’s cognitive abilities.
It’s a myth to think that after we have eased away from being babies and through our teen years, our brains are done growing, said Bon Secours St. Francis psychiatrist and behavioral health specialist Karen Ann Cooper, MSN, APRN-BC.
“Our brains are like muscles – we can give them a workout, push them by breaking out of our comfort zones and they improve,” Cooper added. “Our brains demand new experiences to grow – our minds get bored with routines.”
“Travel shakes up routines and the brain reacts,” Cooper explained. “But we have to get out of our comfort zone; don’t go to the same beach, the same chair with the same magazine.”
Linda Young, owner-operator of Young Travel and Cruises, a boutique travel agency in Greenville, represents America’s rapidly growing senior population. She also loves to travel.
“From my own experiences, I think travel stimulates the brain, just as much or even more than it did when I was very young,” she said. “At 78, I have found recent travel to be no more difficult than it had been before. In more than 35 years, our agency has had many senior travelers, and I have never had one tell me they should have stayed home because it was too difficult.”
Young’s words are especially encouraging as our rapidly aging American population wonders how to fend off Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related dementias. Furthermore, science agrees with her. In his book, “Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life,” American neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich maintains that the more novel experiences the brain has, especially during the aging process, the more resistant it becomes to “cognitive decay.”
Dr. Merzenich has spent his career studying brain “plasticity” – its ability to change over time. While scientists once thought the brain was only malleable during childhood, his research, supported by several international studies, demonstrates that the human brain is capable of changing throughout a person’s lifetime.
Each time the brain is forced to problem-solve in unfamiliar situations, to adjust to new surroundings, to grasp new sociocultural patterns or to make sense of a different language, it grows tiny dendrites to assimilate new ideas and thoughts. These branch-like connectors grow from neuron to neuron, creating a network of ever-expanding neural pathways that strengthen both the brain’s memory and its attention centers.
“When you set foot in a new place and smell the new foods, hear the new language – that is like weight training for brains,” Cooper added. “The sights and sounds that unfold with travel stretch the brain’s capabilities; the more we stretch, the more we build dendrites. Tasting a new recipe, ordering new food, taking in new views stimulates our visual cortex.”
“If you have ever taken a trip, especially abroad, you feel like you have been born anew,” Cooper explained. “That is the sensation of your brain growing.”
Sam Wojtech, founder and travel advisor of It’s Your Oyster Travel in Charleston, brings her own unique perspective to the issue of travel and brain improvement. Prior to opening her travel agency, she was a licensed mental health counselor specializing in trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
She supports the benefits of travel across all age groups and often not only recommends but also hosts European river cruises, unique cultural excursions and cruises to the beaches of the Caribbean or Mexico. However, if money or time is tight, Wojtech believes “staycations,” becoming a tourist in your own city, and having weekends when you say yes to everything can also provide new brain stimulation and improve mental health.
Deanna “Dede” Norungolo, CRC, LPC, LAC, owner-founder of Reintegrate Counseling in Greenville, also is passionate about helping others find their way back from debilitating experiences.
“Neurologists and other professionals who research the impact of travel on the brain are publishing encouraging reports that travel potentially can improve someone’s cognitive flexibility,” she said. “Even if brain changes are temporary due to the nature of short-term travel opportunities, someone who experiences anxiety or depression can have a positive outcome from venturing to new destinations.”
Furthermore, Norungolo pointed out that the anticipation aspect of a trip has mental benefits: “When the brain’s reward center is activated through actual traveling experiences, planning trips or just thinking about travel, neurons communicate using dopamine. The neurons that release dopamine are seeking or expecting a reward, which may be in the form of an adventure or a great escape.”
Post vacation highs are real too, Cooper noted: “A South Korean study confirmed that life satisfaction is higher 15 days prior to travel and then life satisfaction continues to be higher an entire month after travelers come home.”
Considering all the mental health and cognitive benefits of travel, perhaps it’s time to book, plan or at least dream about your next vacation getaway. Your brain will thank you.
By Janet E. Perrigo