PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Thursday, June 04, 2009

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: does travel broaden the mind? (2 essays)

Dear friends,

This week we have two essays for the question: does travel broaden the mind? Ceit kindly sent us a short essay from home. And as for myself I am now digitally enabled again.

Hope to see you Sunday, take care



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======== essay by Ceit ===========

Hi Lawrence, here's a skeleton essay with my disorganized opinion. I can only imagine how it will be torn apart since I won't be there to defend myself. Unfortunate for me, since I won't get any constructive criticism!

The question is: does travel broaden the mind? And my answer, as is so often the case, is: it depends. What does "broaden the mind" mean, anyway? Is it an increased awareness of different cultures and customs, and tolerance of them? Is it acquired experiences in other places? Is it just seeing something you don't have at home? Why can't we broaden our minds by internet or book?

In my opinion, a broad mind is an open, educated mind. I do not necessarily mean formally educated, but include experiences gained in working/volunteering in places outside of one's home. Practical education. This can be achieved by travel, although not by tourism I think. Here we should differentiate: travel (travel was originally in bold) I would use for the moving around from place to place, probably with a practical goal in mind; tourism (tourism was originally in bold) is using travel purely for leisure and entertainment. Since tourism is a kind of travel, we can't say that travel always broadens the mind. Why can't a simple tourist be broadened by seeing the pyramids or the Great Wall? Well, I say they can but it requires a certain amount of conscious decision on their part. We don't learn by osmosis. Seeing monuments created by other cultures or seeing their traditions played out for us is more for curiosity’s sake than for gaining a real understanding of why these things came into being. Some amount of research and reflection is needed to broaden the mind. Seeing documentaries and foreign films can set the stage for broadening, as well as in-person tourism, but one has to make a conscious decision to allow the growth, so to speak, to occur. Most tourists are not looking to expand their knowledge of the world, they are looking to relax. Now, nothing is wrong with relaxing, it's an absolutely necessary state to include in a dignified and respectable life. However, broadening the mind requires activity and effort. So, I would say that a broad mind has awareness and at least some degree of understanding of a number of cultures to which it does not belong. This understanding also includes some measure of tolerance, although not absolute tolerance for everything just because "it's their culture", as was mentioned in last week's (ahem) judgements.

Why can't we get this understanding by sitting around at home with books, TV and internet? Meh, I suppose you could, to some extent. It wouldn't be the full sensory experience though, which I think often adds a lot towards understanding attitudes of people. You can see a hog slaughter in a photo, you can hear it on a documentary, but you can't smell or touch any of it from your living room, and you don't taste it afterwards either.

I have only mentioned travel that takes you abroad, but within one's own country, travel is also possible. By going only a few miles away, one can find people with vastly different lifestyles and perspectives on the world than one's own. Climate, history, current events, all have an impact that differs in each place, not to mention with each person. As Professor Keating said in Dead Poet's Society, we need to constantly look at things in a different way, and even a small move can change perspective significantly.

Does travel also lighten the wallet? Yes, certainly. Nothing in this world comes free. We must also travel light, however, without too much of our own baggage to prevent us from picking up new and more interesting baggage where we roam.

======= essay by Lawrence ========

Does travel broaden the mind?

In a recent study it was shown that those who lived abroad, expats, were more creative than their peers who did not live abroad. Travelling on holidays abroad does not, according to the study, have the same effect. See The Economist, Expats at Work, 14th May 2009.

The issues for us can be broadly classified under the philosophy of mind and epistemology.

Maybe the most basic question we can ask about the mind (brain) is how does the mind adapt to new "survival " situation. To put the question in a recognizable context, after leaving the arrival terminal at the airport, how does the mind adapt and start processing the new situation and scenery? And an immediate problem how do we assess risk in a situation we at not familiar with?

Never mind travel broadens the mind, travel introduces new risk situations we are not familiar with? And for any expat one of the more serious risk situations is whether we can find a safe dwellings to live in. And maybe for the average expat the next most important question would be, will I find a reasonable job before I run out of money? I submit that these issues and these situations require, at the very least, a different mind set to what we are used to at home.

Linked with processing new situations, we also have to interpret the meaning, significance and consequences of our new information?

One of the significance of living abroad instead of travelling on holiday abroad is that, at the very least, psychologically we do not have the option of going back home.

When we are on holiday we know we are going back home. But when we go to live abroad, no matter for what purpose or how long, leaving before our plans are accomplished would be considered as a failure. And failure, and the fear associated with it, is a basic human characteristic that transcends culture and "new" situations. I would therefore suggest that the scope of failure will also influence our way of thinking. A failed holiday is not the same as a failed move abroad.

We may safely say that travelling, especially to live abroad, makes us manage failure differently than if we were surrounded by friends, family and familiar surroundings. Moreover, travel certainly gives us an immediate incentive to avoid failure. But of course failure comes in degrees. Knowing that we are returning home in three months would, I propose, have a different effect on us than having no time limit or no plans at all to return home.

It is now time to consider what "broadens the mind" means. The obvious meaning is that we become smarter more intelligent, or as in the case of the article, creative. Also there is the implied meaning that we are more tolerant and open minded. Maybe we are not too prone to be judgmental. In other words, we do not follow our own social values and norms blindly or questioningly.

Of course social norms and values are there for a purpose. And that purpose is to help us get on with each other, they help us predict things about people's behaviour and attitude which are important for peaceful coexistence and cooperating.

However, by being open minded in our native social structure we can be as useful as mush as we can be a threat. If we are going to be tolerant about certain behaviour in our native society, a behaviour which our society does not approve of, then we are not reinforcing the values of society. For example, if our society disproves of cohabitation but we have come across societies where cohabitation is common, we won't be appreciated if we advocate personal choice of life style.

Thus, to “broaden the mind” is seen as positive if those around us approve of our opinions based on experiences gained abroad. Of course, we might not care what people think, or maybe only a small minority might support our opinions. But sometimes our imported opinions might turn those around us hostile toward us.

The study about expats and the statement of our discussion have, in my opinion, a flaw in them. As far as the study is concerned I have not seen the original article so I am limited to what is reported. And that flaw is the assumption that we are open to learn and adopt new experiences, practices or habits. This, in my opinion is a doggy assumption to make if not dangerous. Many revolutionaries, for example lived in open societies but they still retained their conservative opinions, Ayotallah Khomeini comes immediately to mind. Many years of exile or living in Paris does not seem to have changed his conservative beliefs. Maybe this is not a good example because the Ayotallah was in exile and in a sense he was not in Paris as an intentional enterprise.

However, we have many situations of people settling in an other country but find it difficult to reconcile their culture and traditions with those of their adopted country. I only need to mention for example arranged marriages, controlling the life and life style of daughters, and some might even say lack of integration by living in national ghettos.

I now want to revisit the theme of dealing with new information. This is perhaps the single most important contributor to why travel broadens the mind; if by broaden the mind we mean smart or clever. The biggest challenge is of course interpreting, correctly, what we experience.

At the basic level we find behaviour practices, for example queuing, but of course it is not enough that we have to queue, but also how we queue. Do we have to stay behind each other to form a straight line that touches the circumference of the earth at a single point at ninety degrees to the centre of the Earth? In Madrid, especially in some banks and market stalls you have to find out who is the last person in the queue because people do not form a straight line and you have to be able to answer the same question when you’re at the end of the queue. But apart from these specific locations queuing is a standard straight line.

A more serious example, that might be even dangerous for travellers, is of course crossing the road. If you are in Britain at a pedestrian crossing you have to look right because cars are driven on the left side of the road. In Italy zebra crossings do not mean much for drivers. The lesson is, of course, look all around you and don’t even think of crossing until the traffic has stopped.

And there is a type of information that is puzzling in a subtle way. At face value certain situations seem illogical if not down right disregard to personal safety. For many years I have puzzled why in Madrid some pedestrian crossings turns green for half the street but inevitably the part you are on is still red. Of course, you don’t see this because you are concentrating on the other end of the street. And you, and I mean you if you are visiting Madrid, start crossing the street with the resulting consequences. I have done it and I have seen many tourists do it.

It is only recently that I have come up with a reasonable theory, at least I think so. These split crossing streets are usually quite wide streets for example calle Alcala near Plaza Cibeles. This street is so wide that it is impossible to cross in one go and also manage the traffic efficiently. But in calle Alcala, junction with Gran Via you cannot make this mistake although there is a split crossing because there is a fenced central strip that prevents you from crossing the road in go. Hence I can only conclude that splitting the street is a compromise. On the other hand, in the centre of London this is not a big issue because streets there are generally narrower. But like all hypothesis it stands to be falsified.

Except of course, we would then have to explain why many Madrileños would cross a busy wide street half way and then wait for the traffic to clear on the other half. They must have got the idea from somewhere.

My point is that living abroad presents us with unusual situations that we have to deal with, but if we try and deal with these situations by applying what we know from home we might be in for a surprise if not a shock. Unfortunately, Madrid is not a very good example for city to illustrate my point because it is quite a relaxed place and easy to live in.

I have left language to the end because this is a complex subject. But first a word about menus. We cannot really generalise about menus translated into English (in a non English speaking country), but we can make some useful observations about a specific town or city. The problem isn’t so much the bad translation but rather what is written is not necessarily what you expect to be served with. And although this is an unfair and bad observation, menus in English might also be a sign of an approaching tourist trap. I would say that this has a high degree if universality about it if we can say anything general about it, but as I say, this is not always the case.

Language is probably the most efficient way we have to exchange information. Behaviourism can take us some way to exchange information and when we travel it seems we have to resort to this form of communication more often than we care to admit. But maybe language has limits in the context of travelling that we also do not admit to.

It is widely accepted, and with some justification, that speaking other languages also broadens the mind. Of course, there is always the philosophical and linguistic issue of whether what applies to language as a concept and mechanism also applies to a specific natural language, i.e. English, German and so on.

But in our context the issue is not whether we understand and have a good command of a second language, but whether we are competent enough with the language of the country and culture we find ourselves in. It is one thing to be able to read a text in a second language and another to hold a conversation with someone in a queue at the grocer´s.

Of course, the more we speak a language the more we can understand people around us and to function better in that society. But does functionung better in a society mean that we can understand that society? Or does it take more than just speaking another language to understand another society. Maybe a positive interest and curiosity to understand that society might be more useful?

It seems to me that travel does broaden the mind but only if we are prepared to learn and are motivated to learn. And while travelling can be exciting and motivational enough to learn and broaden our mind, a question we might ask ourselves is whether it is the travelling that is causing us to learn or whether our natural instinct to want to learn that causes us to travel?

Maddux and Galinsky in their report, according to the Economist, which appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, filtered out the possibility that creative people might be more willing to live abroad. They conclude that it must be something about living abroad that makes the difference.

Although I haven’t read the report I think we also have to account for self confidebce and determination. I am not suggesting that this is the answer, but a relevant factor why some people end up living abroad and not others.

But one important aspect about living abroad is precisely that it is all foreign to us. We just don’t have that experience. And as I have already mentioned, this would require some sort of different mind set from what we are used to. Moreover, if there is anything living abroad does it is to demonstrate the adaptive and flexible nature of our brain.

Finally, although finding ourselves in another country or society makes us learn new things, but for travel to broaden our mind there must first be an intention to be prepared to broaden our mind.

Take care



from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: does travel broaden the mind? (2 essays)

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