For most of us, travel is, on balance, enriching to our lives. The pain of airplane seating, pre-packaged food and jet-lag is substantially outweighed by the benefits of seeing new places and doing new things. Or so we tell ourselves.
But, for those who travel frequently, what is the overall impact of traveling on one’s health and well-being? From an unscientific survey of the five frequent travelers closest to hand, all see it as somewhat detrimental to their health, and only plan to do it for a period in their lives before settling to a more typical traveling pattern of a few flights a year for vacations and such.
Here, I’d like to posit an alternative view: Frequent travel offers a chance at eternal youth.
I should clarify that I don’t mean eternal youth in the Ponce-de-Leon/Dorian Gray sense, but in the more achievable sense of maintaining a youthful brain.
One feature of aging is that we develop practised responses to similar stimuli. This is useful in rapidly assessing new situations and making sensible judgements based on similar experiences (i.e. being an expert). It also means that we are less likely to develop new responses, and find it harder to spot small, but significant, differences in new situations (i.e. becoming ‘set in our ways’). This is the reason that most scientists make any major discoveries in their 20s, but we like our political leaders to be over 40.
So, how do you push your brain outside of its comfort zone to encourage new and interesting responses, and maintain that youthful brain? I’d suggest sharks. If I were to designate a room in my home as a ‘comfort zone’ the one thing I can guarantee it would not contain is sharks.
It may seem slightly odd, then, that on a recent trip to French Polynesia I chose to dive amongst sharks, and odder still that I chose to do it multiple times over a few days, and plan to do it again.
I’m no adrenalin junkie, but there is something both empowering and vaguely enlightening about being amongst sharks for a period of time. It is a two stage experience: first, there is achieving mastery over your fear of entering an environment for which you’re so demonstrably ill-suited, with something that is so perfectly adapted to predate.
Secondly, there’s the period of rapid, adrenalin-fueled contemplation of all sorts of things which I imagine is akin to the cliche of seeing one’s life flash before one’s eyes in the moments preceding a near-death experience.
I’m pretty sure that I didn’t make any major breakthroughs during my time with the black tips and lemons of Bora Bora, but I definitely had a sense of mental invigoration which I’m keen to replicate. Hence, my plan to dive with whale sharks off the coast of Djibouti in a couple of weeks’ time (although if what I hear about plankton levels is true, hammerheads off Port Sudan might end up being more likely).
I’m also pretty sure this effect doesn’t just apply to sharks. I reckon anything that can drag you out of your comfort zone is likely to have a similar rejuvenating effect. The nice thing about traveling is that it gives you both the opportunity and excuse to do these sorts of things.
Hence, this year, for the first time, I’m actually planning to weave a series of comfort-zone-extending activities into my travels and hopefully I’ll report on some of these in future articles. I say hopefully because, whilst I’m 99% sure these experiences will be life enhancing, sharks do always present the slim chance of radical life foreshortening.
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