Forget “Finding Yourself” (Or: How Travel Transformed My Brain)

The other day, I was talking to a friend about my upcoming trip to Thailand with Sue. She listened and then mused about her own desire to travel.

“I just feel like I just want to go out into the world and find myself,” she said. “Find out who I really am, you know?”

I nodded, “Oh yeah. Totally. Yes, I know.”

But now, after thinking about it, I’m not so sure. I get how travel can take what you know of yourself, put it through the wash and bump it violently up and down on a scrub board until everything you thought you were is completely wrung out. (It may not be a coincidence that I came to this realization while doing laundry on a scrub board in a Central American lake.)

“Travel has given me many gifts, and while I once thought ‘finding myself’ would be one of them, turns out I was wrong.”

But the whole “finding yourself” thing… I’m not sure I buy it.

Sure, travel gives you space. It allows you to live in the moment. Be spontaneous. Foster a greater appreciation for home, your loved ones, warm showers, clean underwear, nail clippers, vegetables. It makes you more aware of your privileges. Allows you to explore parts of yourself you didn’t know existed.

Travel has given me many gifts, and while I once thought “finding myself” would be one of them, turns out I was wrong.

I’m not alone here. In her book, Sue writes about her own efforts to find herself, inevitably coming to the same conclusion at the arrival gates: “I had left home with the idealistic notion of ‘finding myself’—as if the person I was wasn’t adequate and I would find somebody better to be… where? Hidden beneath the orange sand on a Namibian dune? Buried beneath a stack of dusty books in a Tibetan monastery? It seemed so ridiculous now. I was still the same neurotic paranoid person that I’d been a year ago.”

So if finding yourself isn’t what makes travel so powerful, what is?

I was noodling this question when I returned to a bit of ol’ faithful inspiration: a lecture by the mid-20th century philosopher Alan Watts called “The Dream of Life.” In it, Watts asks us to imagine that every night, we have the power to dream 75 years of a new life. The 75 years of that new life could be whatever we want it to be.

He muses that, sure, at first we would dream that we’d have every single pleasure we could imagine. Every comfort. Every material longing. (Think fancy cars, a mansion and all the poutine in the world.) But then he wonders if eventually we’d want something different, if we’d want a surprise. He wonders, after getting everything we wanted, would we find ourselves craving, in essence, something unknown.

As we embark on dreaming a life of unknowns, he goes on to say, “Then you would get more and more adventurous and you would make further- and further-out gambles of what you would dream. And finally, you would dream where you are now. You would dream the dream of living the life that you are actually living today. That would be within the infinite multiplicity of choices you would have.”

In a way, his words remind me of neuroplasticity—the mind’s ability to change the brain. One online medical dictionary defines it as “the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.”

The notion suggests that, as we age, our brain plasticity sort of… hardens. As children, we experience new things all the time, making our brains seem like melted plastic ready to be moulded as they acquire all sorts of new information.

“Every time, I learned something that changed my life course so wildly I can only come to the conclusion that, despite all my experiences, I don’t know much about myself at all, and that I likely never will. How precious a realization that is.”

But as adults, that plasticity declines. There’s less novelty. We enter routine, and we come to seek pleasures we already know: hamburgers, a daily run, a cozy couch, the fastest route home from work. With all that neural comfort food, our brain goes into a food coma of sorts.

But all is not lost.

Neuroscientist Sarah McKay suggests that, “under the right circumstances, the power of brain plasticity can help adults minds grow. Although certain brain machinery tends to decline with age, there are steps people can take to tap into plasticity and reinvigorate that machinery.”

Travelling might just be one of them. Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School who studies the link between creativity and travel, has told The Atlantic that “foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms.”

It’s here, I believe, where the power of travel lies. When we shake up our lives, throw routine to the wind, we could really be waking up our brains. Just imagine the galactic neuro-networks of your brain stimulated by new, uncontrolled experiences—like watching an elephant bathe with its child in a waterhole. Those flickers flaring up as you first witness the enormity of a mountain range from above the cloud line on top of a peak. That very sight lighting up your synapses like fireworks on a Victoria Day long weekend.

And so, away you go again. And you return and then go again. And again. Each time “becoming more and more adventurous and making further- and further-out gambles.” Each time waking up your brain and rewiring it so much so that your growth becomes habitual.

travel inspiration

Lena, right, rising to the challenge of stand-up paddleboarding for the first time over freezing waters during an Outpost expedition to Canmore, Alta. (Outpost Travel Media)

On my first big backpacking trip to Southeast Asia, at 22, I came to the realization that that tomorrow is not a pinky swear; that people, moments, whispers, feelings are fleeting.

On my trip to South America at 23, I emerged with an entirely new appreciation for home.

When I went to Nepal at 24, I found a reverence for mountains.

Volunteering in Guatemala at 25, I forgot myself entirely.

Living among locals in Nicaragua at 26, I was brought to my knees, at once ravaged by a mosquito virus and humbled by the people who cared for me.

While climbing Mount Rainier at 27, I learned of the strengths I bring to a group in a survival setting. I saw how strong I was.

As I had each of these experiences, it was like some tiny, skilled electrician was hard at work, tinkering away in my noggin, silently rewiring how I think, what I want, how I act. Each experience had invariably led me to seek out the next. Every time, I learned something that changed my life course so wildly I can only come to the conclusion that, despite all my experiences, I don’t know much about myself at all, and that I likely never will. How precious a realization that is.

But before I tell you outright to forget about finding yourself, if “The Dream of Life” and neuroplasicticty don’t convince you, maybe it’s better I say: Keep up the search. Continue hunting for that elusive realization that will cause you to stop, sigh a great sigh and say, “Ahh, yes, there I am! I have finally found myself!” If that keeps your brain awake, the neurons firing, the adventures rolling in, then chase after it like a wild horse chases freedom.

As Alan Watts put it, “Now, let’s have a surprise. Let’s have a dream which isn’t under control, where something is gonna happen to me and I don’t know what it’s gonna be.”

The power of travel is in the rewiring itself. It is your ability to dream something entirely new. It is in making your continual growth as a human on this planet a habit.

Or, in other words… #TanYourMind.