Lifestyle,  Travel

5 Ways to Boost Your Brain by Getting Away

Have you ever felt so excited to go on vacation that you can’t even sit still? Even though I value routine, I love to get out of it also. I love being home and I adore an adventure away.

The stark reality of life in the age of COVID-19 is that many families are staying home, appropriately so. We hadn’t taken a family trip since January, so as summer set in here in Canada and the pandemic curve has been flattening in our area, we found new freedom to travel around the beautiful British Columbia province.

Photo by Joel Bradley

We decided to set off on a little mini-vacation this past weekend. Driving for less than two hours and being gone only two days left us feeling as refreshed as being gone a week or more.

Taking a vacation doesn’t have to mean taking extensive time off work and spending hundreds or thousands of dollars. A staycation (either staying overnight at home or close to home) can reap the same benefits as a full-blown vacation.

Have you ever pondered why getting out of routine feels so good?

I discovered there are several scientific reasons why vacations are good for your brain, which is just as important as physical and spiritual health. Read my post “Connecting Mind, Body, and Soul” to see how all three are intertwined.

Getting out of routine can be useful for improving memory, increasing focus, enhancing creativity, broadening perspective, and boosting your mood.

Below I’ll unpack five benefits and give you a takeaway for each.

1. Improved Memory

Taking a vacation, even if it’s a weekend or day getaway, can improve your ability to retain information. When we change locations and activities it stimulates the hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores long-term memories.

Changing your environment and daily movements can maximize the brain’s effectiveness, says Benedict Carey, author of How We Learn. Mixing up your routine, Carey says allows “you to retain more information and be more successful.”

It makes sense when I think about it. Some of my longest lasting and memorable moments come from times when I was on vacation. While I knew that taking lots of pictures while on vacation helps with the memory bank, I didn’t know that the brain is stimulated in ways that don’t happen in regular routine. 

Kids remember when routine is rattled. Maybe it’s a surprise trip to get ice cream. Perhaps a living room sleepover. I want my kids to remember their childhood with fondness. This doesn’t mean I provide a problem-free reality. It does mean we allow for memorable out-of-the-ordinary moments.

Takeaway: Getting the brain benefits of a vacation can be as simple as playing tourist in your own city. Activate your inner explorer and see something new!

2. Increased Focus

Are you fixated on a problem at work? You keep trying to push through the longer you stare at the screen, the more stuck you feel.

“ Neuroscientists have found that our brains are constantly seeking novelty, and will become distracted easily in search of the bright new shiny thing,” says Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time.

This is another reason taking even a short vacation can be so helpful — it creates the newness that your brain is always seeking. This novelty increases your engagement with the task at hand and allows you to focus better.

New sounds, smells, tastes, sensations, and sights spark different synapses in the brain and have the potential to revitalize the mind. When you discover new things or feel like you’re doing something adventurous, your brain gives you a little blast of dopamine, the hormone and neurotransmitter that makes you feel good. 

You don’t have to fly to a foreign country or find a remote beach to get the benefits of taking a break. University of Michigan researchers have found that simply spending an hour or so in nature can boost your ability to concentrate.

Takeaway: Rather than pushing through, take a break (even a small one) and get out in nature—preferably someplace you’ve never been before.  

3. Enhanced Creativity

Think of your brain like play dough. If the dough gets left out in the air, unused, it will start to dry up, and become useless. However, if the dough is used, stretched (and properly stored), it stays supple. The brain’s ability to restructure itself is known as neuroplasticity. The more “plastic” your brain becomes, the more creative thoughts and connections you’re able to have.

The brain creates paths it needs and deletes others it doesn’t use.

In fact, people who travel to new places, keep learning languages and continue to experience new things into old age, are far less likely to develop cognitive decay, according to Dr. Michael Merzenich, known as “the father of brain plasticity.”

Want to maximize your brain’s neuroplasticity? A change of scenery and routine wakes up your brain and takes it off autopilot. Learn a few words of a different language, discover a new park, or try a new takeout restaurant to get those neurons firing.

Takeaway: Change your environment, challenge your thoughts, and thereby change your life for the better.

4. Broaden Perspective

One of the best benefits of getting out of routine is the opportunity for reflection.

A getaway is beneficial because it gives you the time and space to re-evaluate your life and look at it with new lenses.

When you step away from work and responsibilities, it’s the perfect opportunity to ask yourself what is working well and what would you like to change about your life and routine.

When traveling we get to see people out of our ordinary circles of influence. Noticing both differences and similarities can put our existence into perspective.

Takeaway: Take some time out to step away from responsibilities and reflect on your life with a fresh perspective.

5. Boost Mood

Even anticipating a vacation can improve your mood. Researchers have discovered that planning for a vacation makes people happier before they go.

When we merely look forward to doing something fun, it triggers a release of dopamine, that feel-good neurotransmitter mentioned earlier.

Takeaway: Plan a vacation, a staycation, or even an afternoon getaway so you’ll have something fun on the horizon. Your brain will be better for it!

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