After returning from a year-long hiatus to the United Kingdom and continental Europe, I thought it would be prudent to share my experiences. Having caught the travel bug several years ago when visiting the UK for the first time, a year long overseas working holiday seemed like a dream come true. What I didn’t envisage was the effects of this experience on cognitions, specifically, the feelings of displacement, disorientation and dissatisfaction. In this article I aim to examine the effects of a changing environment on the human perceptual experience, as it relates to overseas, out-group exposure and the psychological mechanisms underlying these cognitive fluctuations.

It seems that the human need to belong runs deeper than most would care to admit. Having discounted any possibility of ‘homesickness’ prior to arrival in the UK, I was surprised to find myself unwittingly (or perhaps conforming to unconscious social expectation – but we aren’t psychoanalysts here!) experiencing the characteristic symptomatology of overall depression, including sub-signs of negative affect, longing for a return home and feelings concurrent with social ostracism. This struck me as odd, in that if one is aware of an impending event, surely this awareness predisposes one to a lesser effect simply through mental preparation and conscious deflection of the expected symptoms. The fact that negative feelings were still experienced despite such awareness causes an alternative etiology for the phenomenon of homesickness. Indeed, it offers a unique insight into the human condition; at a superficial level our dependency on consistency and familiarity, and at a deeper, more fundamental level, a possible interpretation of underlying cognitive processes involved in making sense of the world and responding to stimuli.

Taken at face value, a change in an individual’s usual physical and social environment displays the human reliance on group stability. From an evolutionary perspective, the prospect of travel to new and unfamiliar territories (and potential groups of other humans) is a altogether risky affair. On the one hand, the individual (or group) could possibly face death or injury through anthropogenic means or from the physical environment. On the other hand, a lack of change reduces stimulation genetically (through interbreeding with biologically related group members), cognitively (reduced problem solving, mental stagnation once initial challenges relating to the environment are overcome) and socially (exposure to familiar sights and sounds reduces the capacity for growth in language and, ipsofacto, culture). In addition, the reduction of physical resources through consumption and degradation of the land via over-farming (hunting) is another reason for moving beyond the confines of what is safe and comfortable. As the need for biological sustenance outranks all other human requirements (according to Maslow’s hierarchy), inductively it seems plausible that this could be the main motivating factor why human groups migrate and risk everything for the sake of exploring the unconquered territories of terra incognito. 

The mere fact that we do, and have (as shown throughout history) uprooted our familiar ties and trundled off in search of a better existence seems to make the aforementioned argument a moot point. It is not something to be debated, it is merely something that humans just do. Evolution favours travel, with the potential benefits outweighing the risks by far. The promise of greener pastures on the other side is almost enough to guarantee success. The cognitive stimulation such travel brings may also improve the future chances of success in this operation through learnt experiences and the conquering of challenges, as facilitated by human ingenuity.

But what of the social considerations when travelling? Are our out-group prejudices so intense that the very notion of travel to unchartered waters causes waves of anxiety? Are we fearing the unknown, our ability to adapt and integrate or the possibility that we may not make it out alive and survive to propagate our genes? Is personality a factor in predicting an individual’s performance (in terms of adaptation to the new environment, integration with a new group and success at forging new relationships)? From personal experience, perhaps a combination of all these factors and more.

We can begin to piece together a rough working model of travel and its effects on an individual’s social and emotional stability/wellbeing. The change in a social and physical environment seems to predict the activation of certain evolutionary survival mechanisms that are mediated by several conditions of the travel undertaken. Such conditions could involve; similarity of the target country to the country of origin (in terms of culture, language, ethnic diversity, political values etc),  social support to the individual (group size when travelling, facilities to make contact with group members left behind), personality characteristics of the individual (impulsive, extroverted vs introverted, attachment style, confidence) and cognitive ability to integrate and adapt (language skills, intelligence, social ability). Thus we have a (predicted) linear relationship whereby an increase in the degree of change (measured on a multitude of variables such as physical characteristics, social aspects, perceptual similarities) from the original environment to the target environment causes a resultant change in the psychological distress of the individual (either increased or decreased dependent upon the characteristics of the mediating variables).

Perceptually, travel also seems to have an effect on the salience and characteristics of the experience. In this instance we have deeper cognitive processes that activate which influence the human sensory experience on a fundamental level. The model employed here is one of stimulus-response, handed down through evolutionary means from a distant ancestor. Direct observation of perceptual distortion while travelling is apparent when visiting a unique location. Personally, I would describe the experience as an increase in arousal to one of hyper-vigilance. Compared to subsequent visits to the same location, the original seems somehow different in a perceptual sense. Colours, smells, sounds and tastes are all vividly unique. Details are stored in memory that are ignored and discounted after the first event. In essence, the second visit to a place seems to change the initial memory. It almost seems like a different place.

While I am unsure as to whether this is experienced by anyone apart from myself, evolutionarily it makes intuitive sense. The automation of a hyper-vigilant mental state would prove invaluable when placed in a new environment. Details spring forth and are accentuated without conscious effort, thus improving the organism’s chances of survival. When applied to modern situations, however, it is not only disorientating, but also very disconcerting (at least in my experience).

Moving back to social aspects of travel, I have found it to be both simultaneously a gift and a curse. Travel has enabled an increased understanding and appreciation of different cultures, ways of life and alternative methods for getting things done. In the same vein, however, it has instilled a distinct feeling of unease and dissatisfaction with things I once held dear. Some things you simply take for granted or fail to take notice of and challenge. In this sense, exposure to other cultures is liberating; especially in Europe where individuality is encouraged (mainly in the UK) and people expect more (resulting in a greater number of opportunities for those that work hard to gain rewards and recognition). The Australian way of life, unfortunately, is one that is intolerant of success and uniqueness. Stereotypical attitudes are abundant, and it is frustrating to know that there is a better way of living out there.

Perhaps this is one of the social benefits of travel; the more group members that do it increases the chances of changing ways of life towards more tolerant and efficient methods. Are we headed towards a world-culture where diversity is replaced with (cultural) conformity? Is this ethically viable or warranted? Could it do more harm than good? It seems to me that there would be some positive aspects for a global conglomerate of culture. Then again, the main attraction of travel lies in the experience of the foreign and unknown. To remove that would be to remove part of the human longing for exploration and a source of cognitive, social and physical stimulation. Perhaps instead we should encourage travel in society’s younger generations, exposing them to such experiences and encouraging internal change based on better ways of doing things. After all, we are the ones that will be running the country someday.