BY BEN THOMAS | Photo by Mads Schmidt
In the 2021 movie Roadrunner, crew members of Anthony Bourdain’s TV series Parts Unknown recount the unforgettable experience of shooting the show’s famous Jerusalem episode. Though Bourdain and his crew had come to the Gaza Strip to document Palestinian cuisine, they soon found themselves in a much more serious situation: trapped in a hotel during a week-long military bombardment. Amid the smoke, fear, and confusion, Bourdain made the courageous choice to stay and keep filming—earning Parts Unknown an Emmy Award.
But by then, Bourdain was known as far more than just a food journalist. While each episode of his series began with a culinary premise, Bourdain insisted not only on eating the same dishes his hosts ate, but also on sharing their living spaces, meeting their families, and talking heart-to-heart about their struggles and aspirations. He later said these conversations transformed his touristic curiosity into sincere empathy for friends around the globe—unfolding his personal universe to encompass dozens of countries and cultures.
In other words, Bourdain’s travels profoundly expanded his consciousness—not unlike a psychedelic experience (which he was also a very vocal fan of). In fact, psychological research shows that certain types of travel can produce very similar effects to a psychedelic trip: loosening restrictive thought patterns, enhancing our problem-solving flexibility, increasing our empathy, and permanently expanding our sense of reality.
However, not all travel expands the mind equally. We only reap the real psychotropic benefits when we travel as Bourdain did—with an open embrace for the uncomfortable.
A 2010 study by Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School who studies the psychology of travel, reports that traveling “facilitates idea flexibility,” enhancing people’s ability to solve problems in multiple ways—and “helps overcome functional fixedness,” breaking open our minds’ preconceptions about how things work, and making us more receptive to unfamiliar viewpoints and approaches.
This concept of idea flexibility will be equally familiar to veterans of psychedelic journeys, who’ve discovered firsthand how easily one’s attitudes and preconceptions can dissolve in a mind-altered state. In fact, research shows that psilocybin (like travel) disrupts habitual thought patterns, measurably increasing people’s ability to “generate many solutions to a problem with several possible answers” for up to seven days after a single dose.
But like any powerful mind-altering experience, travel can only spark this transformation when we loosen our grip on our comfort zone. As Galinsky emphasizes, immersive multicultural experiences encourage much more flexibility than flying halfway around the world just to stay in a familiar five-star hotel—which is a bit like taking a psychedelic dose that’s too low to “break the veil.” It may be a good start, but it doesn’t shake up our context enough to produce noticeable growth.
Backpacking, on the other hand, can be a highly effective way to learn flexibility (sometimes the hard way!). Doing laundry in a place with no running water, or keeping warm in a hostel with no central heating, may seem less than delightful at the time—but situations like these expand our minds by compelling us to think about everyday activities in ways that are completely new to us; and invent, or humbly ask for help with, solutions we never would have considered at home.
What’s more, flexibility is far from the only benefit that travel and psychedelics share in common. Travel can also strengthen empathy—when we approach it with a willingness to listen and a desire to understand.
Along with Galinsky’s findings on flexibility, his 2010 study also notes that travel “increases awareness of underlying connections and associations”—teaching us to focus on the needs and hopes we share with others, rather than the traits that make us different. This awareness of connectedness, Galinsky says, is “a critical ingredient in compassion and empathy.”
But while that may be true, many other experts have pointed out that not all travel cultivates empathy in equal measure. “Your frequent flier status, the stupid little cordon separating the boarding lines, the way you take an Uber or cab from the airport after you land, not a bus or colectivo or matatu—those all reinforce divisions, not empathy,” writes Time magazine foreign correspondent and Roads & Kingdoms co-founder Nathan Thornburgh.
Joseph M. Cheer, a professor at Wakayama University’s Center for Tourism Research, says many tourists also fail to understand the cultural context of their interactions with people in other countries. For example, in a 2019 study, Cheer found that westerners who’d recently completed a bike tour of Cambodia tended to describe Cambodian people as “happy,” “lovely,” and “generous”—referring mostly to service-industry transactions in hotels and restaurants.
Still, anyone who’s experienced an empathic breakthrough on psychedelics knows there’s a world of difference between genuine empathy and “empathetic-type imagining.” A high-dose psychedelic trip can dissolve the boundaries between “self” and “other,” enabling the mind not just to imagine how (we assume) another person feels, but to feel that person’s joy and pain from their perspective. Such a journey can be emotionally shattering—and deeply humbling.
Similarly, Hazel Tucker, associate professor of tourism at the University of Otago, says travelers need to embrace “unsettled empathy” to cultivate genuine compassion during their time abroad. As Bourdain realized, the only way to truly empathize with a person is to engage in meaningful conversation with them, which often means sharing their lifestyle for a while. During that time, we may be forced to engage with the uncomfortable day-to-day realities of inequality and colonialism—and to expand our mental universe to encompass radically different perspectives.
Yet, although our newly expanded reality may be a bittersweet one, few travelers would trade it for the tunnel vision of a person who remains on familiar soil. Like a psychedelic voyage, travel “zooms out” from our familiar beliefs, habits and viewpoints, dwarfing them in a vastly broader context, which teaches us that our way of seeing the world is just one way among many.
That realization can be challenging; even painful at times. But as any serious traveler (mental or global) can tell you—once you’ve seen it for yourself, there’s simply no turning back.
And while multicultural experiences might seem hard to come by in our current quarantined state, they’re closer than you might think. Respectfully attending a different religion’s services, volunteering at an economically disenfranchised school, or just taking a road trip to a rarely-visited town, can all be opportunities to learn new ways of thinking, and develop personal empathic connections with people you might never have met otherwise.
“You want travel?” asks Thornbrugh. “You want to experience different cultures? Start at home. Start now.”
Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He specializes in telling stories from the frontiers of science, history, culture and the cosmos—and the points where all these fields intersect.