TOAD Talk: Dr. Russell Spinney

The Thacher School
Toad Talk, April 15, 2024
The Effects of Travel on the Brain

Good morning, everyone.

Time is moving quickly. It has been more than a month since we returned from spring break. It is a big week, an important week that marks the beginning of the rites of passage for students at Thacher. For seniors, this week marks the culmination of a lot of work. So my brief message to seniors is you have got this, spend these last few days polishing and preparing. It is time to showcase your work. And then, over these last few weeks, make sure to smell the proverbial roses. This next month is going to fly by and I hope you all have time to reflect, enjoy, and appreciate our remaining time together. Building on Mr. Arceo’s messages about mindset and travel I want to talk briefly today about the importance of travel in all its many forms.

My family did not take many vacations growing up. I was fortunate to have books and the woods behind the house to get me out into the world. My mother worked hard as a country doctor and took just one week off every year around the Fourth of July, when she would just relax, read, nap, and tend to her flower gardens. My father started organizing trips during that week off where we would travel up to northern Ontario, Canada to relax, boat, and fish in the many lakes of that region where the aurora borealis, the northern lights, would inflame the night sky in colorful displays of light. 

We did make a trip to visit my mother’s family in the Philippines when I was ten, which connected me to my many aunts, uncles and cousins, and opened up a whole side of who I am, not to mention a whole new sense of the world beyond New York City where I was born and northcentral Pennsylvania where I grew up. I also learned about dictatorship in subtle and not so subtle ways. But that is another story for another time. 

I also experienced how hard, how stressful travel can be, flying halfway around the world in another country. It took time to process all of that, so I was not really attuned to the idea of travel, I did not really think of travel or catch the travel bug, the Wanderlust as the Germans call it, until my junior year in high school, the fall of 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, when my German teacher, Mr. Earl Grover, said to me one day, you know there are programs and scholarships that can help you go to Germany, and that experience, itself a whole other story, continues to shape me, my professional career, and how I work with all of you to this day.

I also started thinking about the importance of travel because of what I have observed of my own children when we travel. We started taking them on camping trips and to see family when they were very young, and what I have noticed every time is what I describe as a cognitive leap, as if their brains’ growth is accelerated simply by traveling in some form. Over the years, they bring up powerful memories of those experiences that they retain, and they have started making connections across those experiences which continue to surprise me.

My family and I got to travel to Costa Rica this spring break with good friends. Travel there was hard for my family: the heat, humidity, mosquitoes - and it was still the dry season there, not even the rainy season yet! I also noticed that my senses felt dull after a few days. Those conditions are stressful on the body as it adjusts, but I also think spending the first week visiting all the tourist destinations and seeking comfort in the places tourists go had something to do with it - it felt all too familiar.

But then we returned to Mr. Sanchez’s hometown of Atenas, which is named after the Greek goddess, Athena. For those who do not know him, he is a Spanish teacher here, the coach for the varsity boys soccer program, the head of the EAC and the director of the sustainability program. He does a lot and I got to see him in his element. Walking with him through his home town, listening to Mr. Malissia and Mr. Sanchez speak Spanish; they struck up conversations with everyone, no matter what they looked like or what station in life they might come from, which is an inspiring way and model for how to engage with the world: listening, learning, connecting with people and the place. Something began to happen in my brain again that I have experienced in other places, words from different languages I have studied began popping up in my brain in German, Japanese, and Spanish, and I found myself again in that moment when the brain begins to switch into another language; listening and comprehension start to become a little more fluid, suddenly I am listening to the story of the place in another language, I begin to see the place in a different way, and I feel more awake, happy, alive and wanting to do more.

That all got me wondering: What are the effects of travel? What does the research show? What are some of the key takeaways? There are both positive and negative effects, of course, like the environmental impacts of travel; there was also an interesting study on the disorienting effects of high altitude airplane travel that I found. But one thing that I found really striking was that movement is important. Any kind of travel, movement outside of our routine sense of place, carries the potential to rewire our brains and improve our health. By getting out of our comfort zones and experiencing the unfamiliar, we have the ability to invigorate our brain’s plasticity, its ability to grow, change, and regenerate. 

One recent study found that life satisfaction rose 15 days before travel and lasted for about one month after returning home. As the author of that report suggests, not only does planning a trip make you happy, the emotional benefits of travel stay with you long after you've returned home. From another small study that needs further research, researchers theorized that travel forces you to think in different ways and develop "cognitive flexibility," which is a key component of creativity.

So what can we learn from all of this? Think about travel differently. Get outside of our comfort zones a little and try it out. ALSO: What more can we do besides just travel? Get to know other places deeply and develop connections that may lead to relationships and deeper learning.

What is Mr. Sanchez thinking about? Systems thinking - of course! He has a lot of ideas that I am sure we will learn more about when he returns. But he is connecting what we are doing here to what is going on in Costa Rica, for us to study and apply through what we eat and drink: the sugar, coffee, chocolate, pineapples, and bananas that are grown in his home country and the impacts of our consumption on people and environment in his home country, and how we might use travel to study all of these systems and evolve them. So more to come there.

But that gets me thinking about how travel connects to our curriculum? How could it connect more and what more can we do besides just travel? There are ways to think about travel differently. When we think about travel, what probably comes to mind most Immediately is international travel. There are many costs and a lot of work involved. Thacher cannot support everything, but we are starting to think more strategically about long term thinking for the school and there things to consider about strategic endowment that could help support faculty and staff to develop travel programs, and for more opportunities for more students to explore. 

So we have to think creatively too, and that is why I will reshare that spreadsheet after assembly, which I shared in the fall for students to think about opportunities that are local, regional, national, and international. There are a wide variety of opportunities for travel, community service, language immersion, the humanities, and sciences that members of this community have helped curate. There are also additional notes on the availability of financial aid and recommendations from different people in the community included. So now I want to invite community members to share new opportunities that you have found this year, and help create more opportunities for more people in the future. 

But also, in closing today, think about regional and local travel and movement. Get outside, move. It is inspiring to see students on Sunday mornings gather outside the gates of Thacher and jog down to the farmer’s market or to hear about students hiking up to Twin Peaks, going camping, and taking horses out onto the trails. You are helping to keep your brain active, healthy, and happy just by moving beyond the routines of everyday life. Wearing the Ms. Carney hat for a moment: Be safe, be prepared, travel in groups, check in on Reach. But get out there!

Thank you!

Dr. Russell Spinney is Chair of Thacher’s History Department and the Director of the Marvin Shagam Program for Ethics and Global Citizenship. 

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