Your Brain on Travel
Addicted to getting away? Blame it on the Dopamine.
Why do we travel? Since you are reading this, I'm assuming that you like to travel. Have you ever thought of why, other than it's a way to take a break from your everyday routine? Some recent research I found shows that wanderlust is related to an inner destination called "Flow State," a great place to spend some time.
In Flow State, our actions flow with minimal interruption from conscious thoughts, leading to exceptional creativity and performance, not to mention feelings of happiness and satisfaction. You could say Flow State takes us to feeling at home in our own skin, to our authentic self.
If you have ever lost track of time, forgotten to eat lunch, performed something with unusual ease, or looked up from a project and realized it's 2:00 AM and you aren't a bit tired, you've experienced a Flow State.
Athletes, artists, and high achievers all have stories of how being in the Flow State leads to optimal performance.
In Flow State, our brain waves slow down. Our prefrontal cortex (judging brain) quiets as our brain releases lots of feel-good performance-enhancing chemicals like norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin.
The opposite of Flow State is when our mind races with too many thoughts. We are hesitant, on edge, full of self-doubt. Our problem-solving capacity shrinks. It turns out Mario is right; what doesn't kill you makes you smaller. In psychological terms, we might say that the fearful ego is in charge.
Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is best known for his theory of Flow State, as outlined in his 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He describes flow as a state of complete immersion in an activity.
Here are some characteristics of situations with high potential for flow:
- Intrinsically rewarding activity.
- Clear, attainable goals that still stretch us.
- Complete focus on the activity.
- Situations where we feel some control over the outcome.
- When we forget to feel self-consciousness.
- There is immediate feedback about the action.
- There is intense concentration and focused attention.
- When we lose track of time.
Wow. Do you see how the best travel experiences overlap with the points above? Finally, we have a science-based answer to the question "Why do humans like to travel so much?"!
Dr. Csíkszentmihályi writes about flow in sports, creative pursuits, education, and the workplace. He doesn't mention travel. I do, and this is why: It turns out that travel can take us to Flow State in many ways.
According to Dr. C, we achieve flow by setting clear goals, eliminating distractions, stretching our comfort zone, and choosing something enjoyable. Ding ding ding. Those elements also just happen to be the basis for a great trip and cornerstones for The Way of the Tigress framework for using travel as a vehicle for navigating change (puns intended) and deep personal growth.
If you are interested in more insights and research about the link between travel and feeling good, check out this article Why Travel Feels Like Home.