Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Nancy Sathre-Vogel. If you are a writer and interested in providing a guest post, please contact me.
I’ve read a lot of blog posts throughout the blogosphere about how travel changes people. People talk about becoming more comfortable in their skin, about an increase in confidence, and more knowledge of the world. There is no doubt – travel does change people. Quite literally.
I doubt most of us realize just how fundamentally we’re changed by the travel experience, but our brains react to our experiences at the cellular level. In other words, your brain structure literally changes in response to your experiences.
Each one of us is born with all the brain cells we’ll ever have – somewhere around 100 billion of them. That’s a one with eleven zeros behind it. In other words – that’s a lot of brain cells.
Those cells are pretty much worthless unless they are connected together, and that’s the job of the dendrites. Dendrites grow in response to challenge and stimulation.
The most crucial job your brain has to do is communicate within itself. Its cells need to “talk” to each other. That’s what the dendritic network does – it sends messages between brain cells.
Let’s take an example. You’ve played video games before right? Remember how hard it was when you first started? How you had to study each and every aspect of the screen and reason it all out to figure out who was going to be where and what the consequences of being there were? It was hard. It was frustrating. It was challenging and stimulating.
Fast forward a few months and you’ve now mastered the game. Now you sit at your computer and play the game effortlessly. It’s like you’re on autopilot and your fingers somehow know what reaction they need to make in response to what’s happening on the screen.
In those months, your brain created a network of connections between your brain cells to facilitate your efforts. Instead of the message needing to scramble from one part of your brain to the other, your body created a network to take the messages directly where they need to be.
Fast forward another couple of months. By now, you’ve mastered the old game and have moved on to another. This time, however, the learning curve isn’t quite so steep and you master the game a bit easier. Blame all the work you did on the first game for that.
What’s happened is that your brain has done the hard work of creating the network. Now, you can call that into play. In effect, you can hijack the dendrites that were grown for the other game, and utilize them to facilitate learning the new game. In essence, you had a “hook” to hang the new information on, so it slotted into your existing framework more easily.
That’s exactly what’s happening when you travel.
The first time you visit a ruin site, you’ll most likely be overwhelmed. So many new pieces of information bombard you – sights, sounds, smells. History, architecture, and lifestyle. You’ll pick up a bit of the information; your brain will grow a few dendrites to process what you’ve learned.
Now you visit another ruin site from perhaps a different civilization entirely. You’ve got the “ruin network” started in your brain, so you’ll slot whatever new information you can into the existing framework. With whatever doesn’t fit, your brain will grow new dendrites to make sense of it.
Over time, and hundreds of ruin sites, you will have created an extensive dendritic network in your brain. You’ve got all those seemingly random bits and pieces of information neatly organized within your brain and you “know” it. The information is readily retrievable and can be applied to anything.
Is this all to say that travel is essential to create an extensive dendritic network within your brain? No. As long as you are in a challenging, stimulating environment, your brain will be working to make sense of your surroundings. You’ll be growing dendrites and slotting information into what you already know.
But while traveling, you’re automatically in challenging, stimulating environments rather than having to seek them out at home. So really, heading out to travel may possibly be the easiest way to learn everything. Even “school” stuff.
About the Author: Nancy Sathre-Vogel is chief blogger at Family on Bikes. Together with her family, she spent three years cycling from Alaska to Argentina. Now, she back at home writing books and blog posts about their adventures.