Have you ever been able to recall a memory in evocative detail? Though you haven’t been to Venice in five years, you can still recollect how a light October drizzle fell over St. Mark’s square. Or maybe you can remember the lush greenness of the woods whooshing by your window when you took a bus into Stockholm. Or maybe you can instantly conjure the distinct smell of cigarettes and cappuccinos in Rome.
Why do these sensations fossilize in the sediment of our memory? Why are we able to summon them from the cob-webbed corners of our consciousness when we’re continents away?
The answer is novelty. When something is new and exciting, it lodges in our cerebral cortex, the brain’s storehouse for long-term memory. And nothing is more exhilarating than traveling to another country.
When we travel to new places, we see things in new ways. I’ve always valued travel for this reason. Wandering wipes the dust from our perspective and helps us see life with freshness and clarity. Being in a never-before-seen place infuses experience with a certain vitality. When we visit a foreign city— a plaza in Barcelona, a crowded Beijing street— we’re no longer confined by our conventional modes of thinking. In a faraway land, we return to a childlike state of being: once again, we’re capable of being astonished by things. Suddenly, we’re alive, awake. Colors are brighter, smells are sharper. We notice the shape and density of the clouds, the sultriness of the summer air, the canary yellow color of the table cloth, the walnut color of cafe chairs.
In our hometown amid our familiar surroundings and familiar routines, we see the world in the same habitual ways. But in a novel setting, we can have unconventional insights and connect ideas more imaginatively. As Grant Faulkner writes in his inspirational Pep Talks for Writers, “Instead of connecting A to B as your brain normally might do, it connects A to C, and then C to H, and then H to A.”
Sadly, as we get older, much of life becomes a mundane march of monotony. Day after day, we find ourselves mindlessly following the same dulling, deadening routines: we see the same people, do the same things. The theme of novelty reminds me of an iconic episode of How I Met Your Mother. Ted, the central character, is a creature of habit: he sits at the same booth at Mac Laren’s pub every night and spends all his time with his college friends Marshall and Lily. At first, when Barney, his obnoxious party boy wingman, tries to convince him to ditch his humdrum surroundings and go out on the town, Ted resists. “Mac Laren’s is this much fun,” he says, moving his hand to indicate a medium-sized level of merriment, “It’s guaranteed.”
“You keep going to the same bar…you’re in a rut!” Barney insists.
“It’s not a rut, it’s a routine!”
“What’s the first syllable of rut-tine?” Barney retorts mischievously.
Eventually, Ted concedes and they have a legendary night of escapades. Among other things, they end up on a plane to Philadelphia, are accused of being terrorists by airport security, go to a lame basement party, and lick the Liberty Bell (hence the episode’s title “Sweet Taste of Liberty).
As artists and writers, we must escape the tedium of everyday life and savor our own sweet taste of liberty. It’s not always possible to galavant across the globe (or spontaneously book a flight to Philly): we have mortgages to pay, ballet classes, soccer games. Luckily we don’t have to hop on a Boeing 747 to experience the eye-opening effects of travel— we can find novelty right here today. Adventure isn’t just climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro or snorkeling in the Great Barrier reef— it can be as simple as rising early in the dew-wet dawn to see the sunrise or ordering a different coffee concoction at our favorite cafe.
Faulkner recommends we do at least 3 new things a year to kindle our creative fire in different ways. His “adventures” have included relaxing in a flotation tank, taking a salsa class, and walking the length of San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. You might visit an art museum, try a new Indian restaurant, go on a silent mediation retreat. You might take a class in the ancient art of origami or see a matinee movie on a Tuesday. You might dabble in French cooking or watercolor painting. Maybe you set out to be a stranger in your streets and explore your neighborhood with a tourist’s keen curiosity. Or maybe you simply write in a library instead of in the same chair, at the same desk you write everyday.
So voyage and venture! Rove and roam! Strap on your backpack and go on a safari— even if it’s just a mile down the road.