The fate of humankind depends on it.
This week Passport headed to Jerusalem – a place that, inch for inch, is one of the most powerful, impactful cities on Earth. For millennia it has played a central role in human history. It’s a city that’s been invaded 100 times; everyone from the Romans to the Persians to the British wanted to control it. And it has helped birth three of the world’s major religions, thereby changing the world forever. But as we dug into the impact that the Holy City has had on “capital H” Human History, we ended up thinking about something that, at first, seemed smaller on the face of it – the impact it has on the actual humans who visit the Holy City. And when we did that, it revealed an even larger truth about the power that travel has on our brains no matter where we go.
This week: This is your brain on travel. And why it’s so important to keep that adventurous, traveling spirit alive even in a pandemic.
Twenty-five years after Neil Armstrong became the first human being to walk on the moon – a place no human being had ever set foot – he visited a place quite the opposite. A place where millions, if not billions of people have walked over millennia and where the footsteps of all of them – the invaders, the prophets, the faithful, the doubting, the most horrible, and the most holy – still reverberate today: Jerusalem
As the story goes, Neil was touring the Old City of Jerusalem in 1994 with Israeli archaeologist, Meir Ben-Dov. When they got to the Hulda Gate, which sits at the top of the stairs leading to the Temple Mount, Armstrong wondered aloud if Jesus had walked anywhere near there. “I told him, ‘Look, Jesus was a Jew,’” recalled Ben-Dov. “These are the steps that lead to the Temple, so he must have walked here many times.” “Are these the original steps?” asked Armstrong. Ben-Dov confirmed that they were. “So Jesus stepped right here?” asked Armstrong again. “That’s right,” answered Ben-Dov.
“I have to tell you,” said Armstrong, “I am more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon.
All places have a unique power – a distinct energy that inhabits them and often finds its way into anyone who visits them. But it’s hard to argue that certain places on earth are imbued with a power so intense that they can bring even the most stoic to their knees. Jerusalem is one of those places.
I came across this story as we were researching the city for an episode of the podcast I help produce, Passport. Our hosts, Andrés and Neil (aka “the Other Neil who went to Jerusalem”), had spent a week there and come back with their minds utterly blown. And if it was hard to put the city into words – it was certainly going to be hard to put it into a podcast. As I looked deeper into the psychological impact Jerusalem can have on people who visit it, I came across something known as “Jerusalem syndrome.”
Jerusalem syndrome is a psychological phenomena whereby someone visiting the sacred and holy sites of the city experiences a sudden constellation of intense, religiously themed delusions, hallucinations, or psychosis. Though it’s not officially included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM), Jerusalem syndrome is a very real thing. Every year, there are news stories of visitors being overcome. There was a man who believed he was the Biblical character Samson and tried to pull a block out of the Western Wall. There was a cycling tourist from Northern Ireland who mysteriously went missing in 2017 and has yet to be found – though pages from a Bible weighed down by rocks were found in the area of the Israeli desert where he was last seen. Jerusalem syndrome has even made it into an episode of The Simpsons called The Greatest Story Ever D’ohed (so now you KNOW it’s real). Every year, about 100 people experience some form of Jerusalem syndrome.
And Jerusalem syndrome isn’t alone. There are several such psychological phenomena named for places around the world. In Florence syndrome – tourists are overcome by rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations which are triggered when they view the artistic masterpieces of the city. There is Paris syndrome – a deep depression that sets in after someone visits Paris because the city fails to live up to the romanticized expectations they have created for it. Personally, I’m pretty sure there is something called Los Angeles syndrome whereby members of my family begin to see celebrities everywhere despite the fact that there’s no universe in which Leonardo DiCaprio, Charlize Theron, and Keanu Reeves all drive for Uber between films.
These syndromes range from the serious to the humorous – but they are all very real for the people having them. And though they are outliers on the bell curve of travel experiences – what they do speak to is the tremendous power that travel can have on our brains. And on that point, the science is in and it is compelling. It is a proven fact that travel literally changes our brains and personalities. And (Jerusalem syndrome aside) most of the time, it’s for the better.
The studies are voluminous. There was a 2005 study that tracked a group of 1,500 Wisconsin women over five years which found that those who took vacations twice a year were significantly less likely to become depressed than those two took vacations once every two years. There was a 2013 study that examined the personalities of a group of German students who had studied abroad and found that the students showed an increase in openness, agreeableness, and emotional stability. In his book, Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, Dr. Michael Merzenich notes that travel can be a key component of fending off cognitive delay because it requires us to take our brains off ‘auto-pilot’ and leave our comfort zones. It’s like the ultimate workout for our brain as it has to process all the new sights, sounds, and experiences around it.
Study after study found that our brains on travel become happier, less prone to anxiety and neurosis, more adaptable, more confident, more extroverted, more open to new experiences, and more empathetic.
Sounds pretty good, right?
And before I go one sentence further, let me establish what I mean when I say “travel”.
We are viewing travel in the most expansive, inclusive way possible. Travel doesn’t have to mean exotic trips with expensive itineraries. It needn’t involve a plane or a stamp in your passport. Travel means going anywhere new. Anywhere. It could mean exploring a different part of the city you already live in, going down a street you never have before, or seeking out any new experience. In every one of the studies on travelers, the unifying theme they all shared was that they involved people getting out of their comfort zones, exploring a new environment, and being in a situation that required them to adapt and think on their toes. And those aren’t things you can purchase anyway – they are a way of approaching life. A philosophy on life. That’s the only special sauce you need to be a traveler. And it’s free for the taking.
When my co-founders and I decided to start our audio company, there was never a doubt that our first podcast would be about travel. The three of us had all worked together while producing audio walking tours around the world for an ahead-of-its-time app called Detour. Prior to that, myself and my co-founder Stacey Book, were producers on the Emmy-Award winning show The Amazing Race. I also spent over a decade working and traveling for the show Survivor. Through our experiences on Detour and in TV, we all witnessed first-hand the deep effect that travel had on us and the people around us.
On shows like Amazing Race and Survivor, we watched people who’d never flown on a plane before see the world for the first time – and it changed us as much as it changed them. We saw people who’d never left their holler in rural Kentucky take in new languages and cultures and meet their first gay person. We saw arrogant people so sure that their way was the right way taken down a notch and, conversely, people previously plagued with self-doubt rise to the challenges travel presented them. And over and over again, we saw the moment when people had their preconceptions explode before their eyes. And when those preconceptions exploded, they didn’t go off like a bomb, but rather a firework; illuminating a new part of their sky for the first time. It was incredible every time.
So when we sat down to produce our first series, travel was in our hearts. And that’s how our first series Passport was born. It’s been a labor of love and given our entire team a way to virtually travel by ear at a time when travel IRL has been out of reach. In that way it’s been a gift to us.
Right now – the world is suffering. People all over the planet are isolated and cut off from each other. Things like anxiety, depression, self-doubt, neurosis, and rage are all on the rise. We don’t have a vaccine for COVID-19 yet. But for all these other psychological afflictions, there are some antidotes and travel is one of them. And that is perhaps the cruelest part of COVID – that it is cutting people off from the exact things they need the most.
Our deepest hope is that while we wait for borders and restaurants and hiking trails to open and for humans to be able to truly connect with each other again – that we can still find ways to safely travel. That the same adventurous spirit that drives us to travel can drive us and others to seek out ways to explore the world from our own quarantines.
I, for one, have been taking my own advice and finding ways to travel wherever I can. It’s part of how I’m staying sane in this unprecedented time.
So with that said, here’s a small list of ways to make travel, in the expansive sense of the word, possible:
1. Trunk picnics in new places:
I carry my restaurant with me, head to a brand new place that’s relatively nearby, and enjoy the fresh vista from the back of my Subaru. Cafe Subaru is great, it’s cheap, the service is adequate, and the views are prime.
2.Travel by ear.
Travel is an intimate, immersive experience. And audio is an incredibly immersive, intimate medium. So the partnership of the two can be magically transportive. Find a great travel memoir audiobook or a travel podcast to listen to and let it take you away. And for extra points, pick something that goes somewhere you’ve never thought of going or features a person who’s lived a very different life than you. Bust that comfort zone to smithereens.ings.
3. Exploring virtual travel experiences.
AirBnB, National Geographic, The North Face, Lindblade, the Smithsonian, National Parks, and so many more have all put together stellar virtual experiences to fill the IRL travel gap. I’ll be learning how to cook Mexican street tacos from a pro this weekend for less than an entree at a restaurant would’ve cost me pre-COVID and attending a free virtual viewing of the Perseids meteor shower next week.
4. Take your tastebuds on a tour
I’ve been stretching my culinary horizons by cooking some traditional dishes from the places we visit each week on Passport. During our Sicily episode, I tried out homemade ricotta. For our Iran episode, I gave tahdig a shot. Passport is in Jerusalem for the next two weeks, so I’ll be trying my hand at homemade kebabs. These recipes have been honed for centuries – and I love the feeling of bringing them to life in my own kitchen.
The power of place is real. And when it’s safe and responsible to get out into the world again IRL – that is where you’ll find us; refilling our mental tanks with the resilience and empathy that travel naturally builds in everyone who does it. And along the way, we’ll be gathering as many stories as we can to bring them to you every week. In the meantime, we’re embracing the chance to explore the full meaning of the word travel. Travelers adapt, that’s what we do. It’s scientifically proven, remember? No matter what curveballs this pandemic throws, we will adjust and keep finding adventure.
Embarking on an Adventure, photo by Mantas Hesthaven, via Unsplash
St. James Cathedral, Jerusalem, Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
Western Wonder, photo by Josh Appel via Unsplash
Jerusalem, photo by Blake Campbell via Unsplash
The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, photo by Faruk Kaymak via Unsplash
Signs at the Beach, photo by Marten Bjork via Unsplash
Tian Tan Buddah, photo by Jason Cooper via Unsplash
In the Trunk, photo by Caed Schoolfield via Unsplash
Walking with Headphones, photo by Olena Sergienko via Unsplash
Golden Gate Bridge, photo by Ben Kolde via Unsplash
In the Kitchen, Photo by Matt Seymour via Unsplash
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