Can travelling alter the brain?

Many of us will have encountered those who have been lucky enough to have had a gap year who or have ‘found themselves’ in Thailand. Nowadays, travelling the world seems to be at the top of every student to do list. The drive behind this need to travel is obvious; the social benefits of meeting new people and experiencing new cultures. However, new research suggests travelling may even be beneficial to your health and alter your brain for the better.

Research by Dr. Julia Zimmerman and Dr. Franz Neyer found the benefits of travelling went far beyond the obvious and impacted on personality and social interactions.  The study compared students who had travelled and lived abroad to students in the control group who had not. Those who had travelled were found to be greater extroverts, presenting higher social engagement and preference to social company, ultimately changing the way they interact with others. Individuals who had travelled showed a decrease in neuroticism in comparison to the control group. Neuroticism is a personality trait characterized by anxiety and loneliness, and is shown in individuals who have a relatively mild mental illness defined as neurosis.  There are further psychological studies that have emphasised this social change that exploring brings. Research by Jiyin Cao found a relationship between the amount of foreign travel experience a person had and an increase in generalised trust. Moving abroad to new places and cultures affected an individual’s interpersonal interactions for the better.

Not only can travel affect an individual’s psychological and social welfare, clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Paul Nussbaum suggested it could help minimize the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The constant cognitive stimulation that backpacking brings is thought to keep the brain ‘switched on’ when it is exposed to the vibrancy and exhilaration of new places. The new language barriers that need to be overcome and getting lost around ancients ruins means the brain is faced with new and challenging situations which would not otherwise be encountered in the comfort of the home. These challenges are acknowledged by the brain, which responds by creating new, and re-enforcing old connections between neurons, via a process called synaptic plasticity. Synaptic plasticity is the change in the way neurons in the brain interact and signal to one another – the strength and efficacy of the messages may intensify. Travelling can alter the structure and function of the brain, consequently leading to an increase in plasticity and an enhanced ability to think and make decisions.

Holidays and city breaks are popular de-stress strategies, be it to take a break from a job or simply to take a step back from reality. The fast paced and multitasking lifestyles that are led today mean the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol is elevated massively. The Mayo Clinic states travelling can decrease cortisol levels, which can have positive effects on your mood and health – prolonged stress can lead to a weakened immune system and increase the risk of developing depression.

So be it a weekend retreat in Barcelona or backpacking around Bali, travelling at any age is beneficial. Travel whilst you are young to build social relations and carry this on into old age to halt dementia. If you were ever in need of an excuse to take a holiday, this is one. As Dr. Nussabaum says, travelling really is ‘a good medicine’.

Author – Rachel Coneys

Editor – Aisha Islam


Zimmermann J, Neyer F.J, 2013. Do we become a different person when hitting the road? Personality development of sojourners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology [Online]. Volume 105 (3), p515-30.

Cao J, Galinsky A.D, Maddux W.W, 2014. Dose travel broaden the mind? Breadth of foreign experiences increases generalized trust. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology [Online]. Volume 5 (5), p517-25.

Global collation. Destination healthy aging [Online]. [Accessed 5.2.16]. Available from:

Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 2011. Healthy aging [Online]. [Accessed 7.2.16]. Available from: