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Decades Of Research Uncover How World Travel Makes You Smarter

And you want to be smarter, don’t you?

When I decided to become self-employed four years ago, I thought I was climbing the biggest mountain of my life. Then, I went to Tanzania (to climb a real mountain, no less) and learned everyone there is an entrepreneur because there is no other choice.

Now, when I feel like I’m struggling to solve a difficult business problem, I think of my friendly tour guide from Tanzania. How would he have solved a problem like this? It lowers my stress and makes the decision easier. Better, too.

Since my first international trip in 6th grade (all the way to Canada, eh!), I’ve been fascinated by cultural differences.

Now that I’ve been to more than 25 countries on every continent, I’ve had the privilege to see the different ways people solve the same problems. Unsurprisingly, some fare better than others.

In Asia, they’re very good at fitting lots of people into little spaces. The Europeans are better than the rest of the world at moving people efficiently across their continent. Here in The U.S., our legal system is fair compared to other parts of the world.

Where you are from comes with significant advantages… and disadvantages. If you never travel, you might not know that. Worse, you may spend your life struggling to solve a problem that would be easy if you just had a slightly different perspective.

If you want to make the smartest decisions possible, live the healthiest life, and overcome the fear of uncertainty, you must seek adventure. You must travel.

This isn’t just my opinion, it’s science. Here’s a little test to prove it.

How Your Environment Makes It Hard To Answer Easy Questions

I have two quick tests I’d like you to take. The way you answer will illustrate an important principle about making smart decisions, building a strong mind, and even living a meaningful life. Ready?

Look at the diagram below and ask yourself, “Are the lines in the center of the boxes vertical?”

Now look at the next diagram below. Which centerline is longer—the one to the left or to the right?

Based on the geographic data I have about people who visit this website—primarily folks from Western countries—I can guess you answered the same way I did: The lines in Fig. 1 are, indeed, vertical, and the centerline to the right in Fig. 2 is longer.

But are we right?

We easily passed the first test, but we were wrong about the second—the length of the centerline. They’re actually the same length. Sure, we realized that as we looked at it longer and drew our fingers across the screen to verify, but it wasn’t our instinctual response.

How did I know that? Because the puzzles reveal a well-studied cultural phenomenon with predictable results: where you grew up explains how you’ll answer. If I took these diagrams to different parts of the world, the results would change.

The reason you and I so easily identified the lines in Fig. 1 as vertical is because we’re self-centered. Really! This test was popularized by Herman Witkin, an American psychologist who dedicated his life to understanding how different people perceive the world.

In The West, we’re more focused on the individual than the group. This perspective infiltrates every part of our lives. We’re able to see that the lines are perfectly vertical because we can easily discard the information around it—the crooked boxes—and focus only on the line.

For someone from a more collectively focused culture—many parts of Asia and South America, for example—this puzzle is harder to answer. They cannot as easily look at the line without considering the crooked boxes around it. Their brain tricks them into believing the lines are slanted.

But what about Fig. 2 with the arrows? Why do Westerners struggle to see that the lines are the same length?

The answer is as interesting as it is simple. In The West, we have the longest history of living in closed off, rectangular spaces. Our homes are boxes, our stores are boxes, our workspaces are… boxes. If you’re looking at the inside corner of a box, you see a line with arrowheads pointing inward. They point outward for the outside corner.

 

To a Westerner, the lines resemble the corner of a wall in perspective view. (Image courtesy of Pacific Standard Magazine)

Even though the images don’t depict a room—they’re just lines after all—that’s what we see because that’s what we’re surrounded by. Perspective makes us think the inside corner is further away and, thus, bigger.

In other parts of the world where less time is spent indoors and buildings are constructed with fewer sharp lines, the people do not suffer this mind trick. They know right away that they’re the same length.

Could this phenomenon be making your life harder than it need be?

Travel: The Secret To An Easier Life And A Sharper Mind

There’s nothing wrong with cultural differences; they’re what make the world unique and interesting. But if you don’t travel, you don’t get to see these differences with your own two eyes.

That’s too bad, but what’s more tragic is you never get to understand how these differences make solving problems easier.

Just like learning about how to simplify business problems from my tour guide in Tanzania, there are many ways your life could become easier if you exposed yourself to a new way of thinking.

  • Struggle with negotiating? Go some place where it’s a normal, daily occurrence. You’ll pick up the skill without even trying because you’ll have to.
  • Want to build stronger, deeper relationships? Take a trip where family and friendship really are the most important parts of life. You’ll look at your whole life differently, too.
  • Having money trouble? Put yourself in an environment where everyone earns a lot. Your brain will make new connections that will help you understand how to earn more yourself. Or, go some place where everyone is poor and no one cares. Either way, you’ll come away smarter and happier.

Just deciding to think different is hard. Travel forces you to think about things that are already decided for you at home. When you spend your whole life in one environment, the decisions you make based on that placebecome invisible.

What you must do is put yourself in a new, unfamiliar environment where your brain is not allowed to be lazy—it mustwork to fit in and make decisions. When you come home from an unfamiliar place, you’re exhausted because your brain has been running marathons to keep up.

But once you’re home, you’ll look at your world just a little different. You’ll see the decisions you used to make automatically and how they caused you to struggle. And, with your new perspective, you’ll expertly maneuver around them.

So go out and see the world. It’ll make you smarter and your life easier.

Your homework today is to pick a new place to travel and set a firm deadline for when you’ll go.

Title Photo Credit: flickr

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Written by Tyler Tervooren

tyler.tervooren@gmail.com'

Mastering my psychology. Ran a marathon on every continent. Organized 3 world records.

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