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Why does travelling change us?

The ability of a holiday to make you “feel like a different person” is well recognised. We may not be travelling for a while, but understanding what happens when we travel allows us to better understand our own minds.

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Travel can change a person. James Boswell said that travel made him ‘a very different man’. Adam Smith complained that young Grand Tourists become ‘conceited’ and ‘unprincipled’ – at a speed they could not have achieved at home. Sara Wheeler wrote that her Antarctic journeys effected a seemingly spiritual shift. And science agrees. Travel can make us happier, more creative and changes our personalities.

How do these changes come about? Anthony Bourdain wrote that journeys change us because they ‘leave marks’ on our memories, our consciousness. This sounds reasonable: new things can affect us, and travel can introduce us to lots of newness – people, experiences, foods. However, I think there’s more to be said about the transformative impact of travel. Drawing on the philosophy of mind, I offer an alternative to Bourdain’s answer – one that is somewhat stranger.

Consider your mind: the seat of your perceptions, your inner emotions and thoughts. Now ask yourself this: where is your mind? Traditionally, Western philosophers have offered two answers to this question. On the first answer, your mind isn’t anywhere. That’s because your mind is immaterial, made of spiritual stuff – a gossamer soul. As an immaterial substance, your mind is utterly unlike the matter that makes up rocks and tables. Descartes drew this strict divide between the material and the immaterial, and scholars often read him as holding that material things take up space, whilst immaterial ones don’t. The rock occupies a bit of space, whilst your mind does not take up any space at all.

On the second answer, your mind is somewhere – it’s inside your skull. It’s often claimed that our minds are identical with our material brains. That’s why, if you damage your brain, you damage your mind. As philosopher Margaret Cavendish pointed out, locating your mind inside your head also explains why your mind moves about as your body does. When my body and brain travel to Paris, my mind comes too.

Variations of the first and second answer have been around for centuries. But, over the last twenty years, a third answer has gained traction. What if our minds are located in space, but they extend beyond our skulls? What if my mind includes squishy grey brain-matter and stuff around me? In their landmark paper, "The Extended Mind", philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers argue just this.

They ask us to imagine a man, Otto, whose poor memory leads him to record everything in a notebook. As long as he has the notebook, Otto functions as well as anybody else – ‘remembering’ names, addresses, and dates. Otto’s cognitive processes seem to be extended beyond his skull to include a sheaf of paper.

And, Clark and Chalmers argue, Otto is not alone. Humans often use tools to think. They point to research exploring how people use pen and paper to perform long sums. Rearranging letter tiles to prompt word recall in Scrabble. Calculating speeds using a nautical slide rule. They argue that, in all these cases, a person’s cognitive process is continuous with their environment. People are thinking using their brains and these tools.

These philosophers speculate that, if our minds comprise brains and notebooks, they might also comprise other peoples’ brains. You don’t remember what led you to esteem that politician, but your spouse does. You’re not sure which of the restaurant’s new specials will suit your taste best, but your favourite waiter does. You and a colleague are stumped on a problem but, together, you work out a solution. One appeal of the extended mind theory is that, for many of us, it captures how thinking can feel. I do form new words by moving Scrabble tiles around. My smartphone does help me remember.

“The Extended Mind” generated oodles of debate, and the theory has been adopted by psychologists, linguists and historians. Thinkers have built on it in various ways. For example, a recent paper argues our our inner selves can be anchored in souvenirs, jewellery, clothes, books.

If minds extend beyond skulls, this can help to explain how people change through travel. My daily life frequently involves thinking and remembering with the people and things around me. Notepad, calendar, laptop, clothes, recipe books. Yet, when I travel, I can leave all that stuff behind. And leaving that stuff behind literally means leaving parts of your mind behind.

Why do people change on the road? In part, because they are leaving their regular cognitive environment behind. Further, as we travel, our minds can extend into a new cognitive environment. Travellers often keep travel journals or blogs; take photographs or make sketches. The resulting documents and pictures later provide aids to memory, becoming part of the traveller’s cognitive processes. They literally become part of our minds. As we leave one place behind us and become involved with another, our cognitive tools change, along with our minds.

This theory explains why some trips are more likely to result in changes than others. Paul Theroux describes trains that give the comforting illusion of ‘Being Home’. They are kitted out with starched linens, napkins, flowers, baskets. They allow you to Eat-While-Travelling, Do-Business-While Travelling. It enables Travelling-to-China-or-Peru-Without-Leaving-America. Theroux argues this phenomenon is far from the traditional notion of travel ‘as going away’.

If I flew to Shanghai for a conference, with notebooks, phone and laptop in hand, it is unlikely my mind would change much. In contrast, if I flew to Shanghai with no luggage, for an unfamiliar event, my mind would likely see some changes. Perhaps that’s because, on the first scenario, I would be Travelling-to-China-Without-Leaving-My-Mind-Behind. Whereas, on the second scenario, leaving home involves leaving behind things that help me remember and think in particular ways.

In the end, journeys don’t change us just because they leave marks on our consciousness. Rather, journeys change us because our consciousness grows to encompass the stuff we find in new parts of the world. Boswell became a different man because travel changed the very substance of his mind.

Emily Thomas is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Durham University. She is the author of The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad, and she tweets @emilytwrites.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Professor of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland.