How travel works on the mind

If ever you feel that life isn’t quite lining up, or that your blood isn’t quite circulating as it should, or that you haven’t seen or smelt or heard anything different in a while, take a trip out of your front door and ask strangers how you can help.

That’s what I’ve been doing this past week.

My trip has been nicely complemented by my reading – but isn’t it always? The meaning-seeking brain will always find a way to pair the sensory input from the world around us with the abstract input from the books we read. On this trip, I’ve already written a long piece on what reading Anna Karenina taught me about how to live a good life.

Turning from fiction to non-fiction, Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made is one of those books that picks you up and turns you around, showing you yourself from a new angle, making new sense of the corners and curves.

Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett teaches us that our brain does not passively receive our experience of the world, but in fact creates it, on the fly, in every moment.

It performs this wizardry by seamlessly piecing together our concepts of what the world is like, to offer predictions about how we should feel or behave.

Lisa Feldman Barrett’s lab has shown that we don’t experience a Platonic Form or essence of ‘happiness’, but rather make a prediction of ‘happiness’ based on the context of the external environment and what’s going on inside our body.

‘Happiness’ is our brain’s best guess for how we should feel when, say, our friends throw us a surprise party. If we had no concept of ‘friends’, ‘surprise’ and ‘party’, then the brain would be unable to make a working prediction of ‘happiness’ and we would feel… something else. Confusion, perhaps.

Sometimes we have to correct our concepts and predictions after bumping into falsifying sensory feedback from the world (and even then sometimes we don’t correct, hence cognitive biases).

How do we encode these concepts if they aren’t innate? Through our culture. Some concepts we are taught (Look, there’s a tree!), some we learn through observation of others (Never make eye contact with strangers on the Underground) and some we pick up through our own experience (Concrete is really hard).

These concepts are the brain’s shorthand for experiencing the world. There is simply too much incoming data to function without such concepts.

Imagine that every time you looked out of your window you saw with naive eyes all the angles, colours, and textures of just a single tree. You’d be fascinated by the thousands of rustling leaves, each one unique, by the way the light bounces off each swaying branch and by the blue sky that hides and reveals itself behind.

Far easier to build up a concept of ‘tree’, label the scene and get on with your day.

Our experience of the world, then, entirely depends on the concepts we learn. New concepts deepen our experience of life. Only when we learn and accept the concepts of, say, watermelon, patience and gardening are we able to identify and include them in our world.

And what better way of learning new concepts than by travelling to a place you’ve never been before, by experiencing an entirely new culture, with entirely new concepts of what it means to be a human in an entirely new concept of society?

This is why travel works.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

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