There may be more benefits than you realise...Now we can justify travel to other cultures and using another language as an opportunity for cerebral development!
We have a saying that travel broadens the mind, but what you may not have realised that it also makes the mind more creative. Simple exposure to other cultures - whether that be through living in another culture, visiting another culture or even spending time in another community culture in your own area - actually expands thinking and opens the mind up to new possibilities.
The principle behind this is the idea that exposure to other cultures creates psychological distance to enable a new perspective. Recent research by Lile Jia and colleagues at Indiana University at Bloomington has led to the construal level theory (CLT) of psychological distance, which explains how we can represent things differently in our minds when we have distance from what is ‘usual’ or ‘normal’.
Spending time in or living in other cultures can teach also us to be more adaptable and flexible. It helps us to see that something can have multiple meanings and allows us to deal with ambiguities better. These are all critical traits for contemporary creative leadership. People who have lived abroad have been found to be 20% more likely to solve a specific problem than those who have loved at home all their lives.
Familiarity not only breeds contempt, it can also lead to insulation
For those that don’t travel or spend time with people from other cultures be warned: we can become insulated from new ways of thinking if we are not exposed to diversity. As we grow older we often end up trying to protecting ourselves from new ideas by gathering around us like-minded people.
Comedian Stephen Colbert says that too many of us are in danger of seeking out “a safe space where like-minded folks can hear things they already agree with, from someone whose opinion they already know.”
According to Jeff Mauzy one of the big reasons that organizations aren't more innovative is lack of diversity at the leadership level.
A reason to travel cattle class
The way we travel can determine how much of a learning opportunity the travel experience might be.
In her book Wilful Blindness, scientist Margaret Heffernanexplores how power and wealth can impose distance between those that have it and those that do not. Wealth, she says, can often block our creativity through lack of exposure. Consider what is your style of travel:
Spending most of your time in elegant London clubs or at the local street stall. Fly in the splendid isolation of first class, instead of in economy, next to the young mother who needs help with her restless child. Limousines and catered lunches, personal assistants and flattering friends teach new habits of privilege and entitlement. While these may seem attractive luxuries, they come at a cost: isolation. Recent research shows that the isolated people appraise information differently. The bubble of isolation, class and power seals off bad news, inconvenient details, hostile opinions and messy realities, leaving you free to inhale the rarefied air of pure abstraction.
Heffernan’s research reveals that the more isolated we are from others, the more confident we become that we are right, and this can kill our creative thinking. The psychological distance between ourselves and others means that inevitably we can end up having to think in far more abstract terms, making real concrete innovation much harder to implement.
Links to language
By learning another language you can take the development even further. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Mashhad in Iran used the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) to compare a group of advanced bi-lingual language learners between the ages of 16 and 18 with a group of monolingual teens of the same age. The bi-lingual language learners (who had been studying another language at least 6 years) far outperformed the mono-lingual teens in all four test areas tested.
One of the factors the researcher believes was important was that bi-lingual speakers have to learn to switch attention between the two language systems. The other factor is their exposure through language to another culture and way of thinking. The author also points out that because other languages may not have the same constructs as our own language, we also need to learn to be creative to generate other equivalent possibilities, which links to divergent thinking.
The way you learn language may, however, impact your creativity. Collaborative and experiential language learning, for example, are more likely to foster creativity. It’s interesting, by the way, to see the other benefits of learning a new language - such as staving off Alzheimer’s, multitasking, better financial decisions, and better English language skills!
Perhaps it’s time to get that mental exercise underway. Enjoy your travels!
Gaia and Andrew Grant
Books of the month:
- Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril. By Margaret Heffernan
- Creativity Inc.: Building An Inventive Organization, Jeff Mauzy and Richard Harriman