Travel causes physical changes to your brain: Here's how

Novelty builds resilience and rewires the brain forever. Here's why travelling is the best gift you can give your brain.

Everyone knows traveling is good for your soul that's been weighed down by the monotony of life. But here's what latest research reveals: traveling doesn't refresh you, but can cause physical changes to your brain by improving neuroplasticity. 

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What's neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to change and adapt throughout a person's life. It is the mechanism that allows the brain to learn new things, retain long-term memory, file away short-term memory and recover from trauma and brain damages. 

The actual actions of plasticity involve the brain's ability to change: including brain activity associated with certain functions being transferred to a different brain location, the amount and proportion of grey matter involved in a cognitive function can change, and synapses (between neurons) can strengthen or weaken over time.

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Your thoughts build your brain routes

Imagine a creek running down a route it has been flowing through for years. Your neural pathways a little like that. The more you think certain kinds of thoughts, the route for that stream of thoughts will deepen (example, anxious thoughts or sad thoughts) and routes not used much (thoughts associated with contentment or relaxation) will weaken making it harder for you to feel relaxed.

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How travel changes your brain for the good

Travel breaks you from your routine.

Nothing tears down the cobwebs of mundane routine like traveling to a new place. During a typical week, which easily rolls into months and years before we stop to think, our thoughts flow involuntarily into pre-determined ways without much awareness. House chores, work schedules, meetings, catching up with friends, etc.

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Remember the creek that's been running down the same path for years? Well, when you travel, you not just step out of your house, but your routine, your habits, and your obligations.

When you are in a new place, the visual stimuli, physical exercise, and new perspective, practical solutions to solve, and experiencing the world differently sets you up to create new neural pathways.

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Travel makes self-care a priority.

Self-care is one thing that is always present on every to-do list but pretty much gets sidelined for other "important" chores like laundry, fixing lunch for your kids, or preparing for a work meeting. Research reveals that just being away from home and feeling at home in a new place can reduce months of stress drastically within a day or two. 

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When you check into a hotel that lets you do nothing but unwind, you are signing up for just that: nothing. Simple things like using an aromatic bath wash or a new flavor of room fresheners can make you feel relaxed and refreshed.

You could go for massages and pampering sessions, but you don't need to shell out a bomb to indulge in self-care. Being away from pressing obligations and taking a stroll in a neighborhood do a whole lot of good for your mental and physical health. 

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Travel gives you space and time to reflect.

When you are away from people and things that constantly occupy your headspace, the clouds of all external factors and commotion disappear. This allows you to come in direct touch with what lies underneath: your emotions, your thoughts, your fears, insecurities, dreams, and desires. 

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This introspection is paramount in waking your brain up from patterned forms of thinking. You can allot some time for thinking about things that worry or concern you so that you go back with new clarity.

But spend as much time in pure self-awareness, where you do nothing but be present with yourself and checking in with your inner world. No agenda, no goals, no problems to solve. Just being you at your own pace and style.

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Travel forces your brain to improve plasticity.

You have no choice but to explore new options and change your perspective when you are in a new world, whether that be in the woods a few hours from home or a new country across the globe. Research reveals that novelty reprograms the brain and builds resilience at the cellular level. Neuroplasticity impacts a lot of important functions such as memory, learning, and focus. When you're having fun with new experiences, you're basically rebuilding your brain forever. 

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These new and challenging situations trigger the brain to sprout dendrites—dangling extensions—which improves the brain's overall efficiency and capacity to adapt and stay resilient.

Also, social interaction with strangers, locals, natives, and people of different cultures and fellow roadies with different viewpoints opens up your brain to new perspectives and inaugurates new neural pathways. Haven't you experienced a beautiful sight or a chance meeting that changed your assumption or belief about something forever? That overtime has physical changes inside your skull.

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Travel encourages spontaneity and creativity.

These two are powerful activators of brain reprogramming. Every great creator or artist knows that plunging oneself into a new world is a great way to get the creative juices flowing. If you're a writer, artists, musician, chef or creator or any kind, you might find your art and the "flow" improving drastically after a trip. Apart from art, being in unfamiliar territory makes you rely more on your intuition and instinct, rather than the more-recently developed cognitive functions of the brain. 

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What experts say

According to Paul Nussbaum, a clinical neuropsychologist and adjunct professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, the mental benefits of travel are definite and can even help you stay immune to degenerative disorders like Alzheimer's. 

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In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Dr Nussbaum explained how travel can cause actual changes in the brain.

"When you expose your brain to an environment that's novel and complex or new and difficult, the brain literally reacts. Your brain begins to look like a jungle."

"Travel by definition is dropping your brain into a place that's novel and complex. You're stunned a little bit, and your brain reacts by being engaged, and you begin to process on a deep level."

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