Provocative Nat Geo Tweet Sparks Age Old Travel Debate

"Sometimes it improves empathy, other times it makes you a bigger jerk."

Image: @mariefeandjakesnow

Does travelling lift the cap off your brain? It’s a question many deem obvious. From Mark Twain throwing shade at those who (loosely paraphrased) “vegetate in one patch of the world” to Anthony Bourdain urging everyone of the age of 22 to “sleep on the floor” and “learn… wherever you go” it’s quite easy for travellers to slip into wearing the lazy refrain “travel opens your mind” like a comfy pair of Converse.

A tweet by National Geographic recently challenged this assumption. “Whether seeing the world actually opens travelers’ minds—that it makes travelers more empathetic—is up for debate,” the world leader in geography, cartography and exploration wrote.

The tweet directed followers to an article entitled, “Travel is said to increase cultural understanding. Does it?”. The thrust of the piece? “Researchers say travel does affect the brain’s neural pathways, but true empathy remains an elusive destination.”

This sparked debate among travellers, who were quick to defend their brain boxes. One wrote, “Travel broadens the mind… but narrows your opinions [and] allows you to make an informed and learned perspective and evaluate what you have experienced.”

Another commented, “Open your eye[s], respect their culture and your experience ends up mind blowing when you come back home; you wish you booked for a longer period. It opens the mind as to the beauty of different cultures showing different parts of the world everyone just does things bit differently.”

Another pointed out it can have broader impacts on one’s self-development, too: “In addition to opening up my mind and teaching me to be more empathetic, it made me self-reliant, independent, confident and more knowledgeable about the world. It also had a positive impact on my professional career.”

Others put up the other side of the argument: “It can, but I’ve also seen it make people feel like experts on a culture when they experience only a small part of it, then argue against someone else’s experiences in a different area of that culture.”

“So sometimes it improves empathy, other times it makes you a bigger jerk.”

Others had a gratuitous crack at tourists: “Traveling is definitely one of the most mind widening things in the world. Of course, if you are not just staying in the hotel lying on a beach chair for the whole time.”

The conversation in the comments also saw a discussion of broader topics like media representation of ‘other’ cultures, and of the experiences of minorities in places like America.

“It opened my understanding that our media doesn’t always report accurately on other countries, for political reasons. Went to Budapest and saw sophisticated happy people. Our media not so long ago portrayed them as shuffling babushkas living in poverty,” one wrote.

“It also opens your eyes to foreigners in your own country and the struggles they face.”

What do the experts say? National Geographic presented the two sides in their article.

First, they cited a 2018 Harris Poll of 1,300 business travelers, of which Quartz reports “87 percent said that business trips helped them to be more empathetic to others” and a 2010 Columbia Business School study which found travel “increases awareness of underlying connections and associations” with other cultures.

Then they pointed out that the coronavirus pandemic and the global Black Lives Matter protests have recently forced us all to reconsider how cross culturally aware we really are.

“There’s this false adage that travel opens minds, but that’s not [a built-in] fact about what travel does,” Travis Levius, a Black travel journalist and hospitality consultant based in London and Atlanta told National Geographic. “Travel does not automatically make you a better person,” nor does it clue you into “what’s going on in terms of race relations.”

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