How Studying Abroad Can Improve the Way You Think

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Study, whether it be in your home country or abroad, will improve your thinking ability, knowledge and creativity. This should go without saying. However, a great number of recent studies have suggested that studying overseas can improve your cognition to a far greater degree than remaining in your homeland.


Although often suggested anecdotally, often by writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Lord Byron, now psychologists and neuroscientists have begun examining more closely the mental change of those who spend time overseas.

According to Adam Galinsky, professor at Columbia Business School, “Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms,” he says.

“But it’s not just about being abroad,” Galinsky continues, “The key, critical process is multicultural engagement, immersion, and adaptation. Someone who lives abroad and doesn’t engage with the local culture will likely get less of a creative boost than someone who travels abroad and really engages in the local environment.” Or to put it another way, you cannot be passive when travelling and expect to become more creative. You have to challenge yourself.

Neural pathways are influenced by environment and habit, meaning they’re also sensitive to change. In essence, what you do makes you the person you are. All those new experiences and sensations experienced by travelling and studying can spark dormant synapses in the brain and have the potential to revitalize the mind.

Knowledge of Self

It is often said that people go overseas to ‘find themselves’. By this, people generally want to find the extent of their limits and see what the best version of themselves looks like. We are lucky enough to now see what this process means in real terms.

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, an associate professor of education and psychology at the University of Southern California, says that:

“What a lot of psychological research has shown now is that the ability to engage with people from different backgrounds than yourself, and the ability to get out of your own social comfort zone, is helping you to build a strong and acculturated sense of your own self.”

By this, she means that we understand ourselves better by contrasting our personalities with a variety of different people. This understanding then translates into self-belief and inner strength.

Also, by coming to know different cultures, you gain a sense of trust in people producing a sense of faith in humanity and therefore a greater feeling of security in oneself. This effect is also managed when travelling simply via the responsibility and independence garnered from managing oneself away from home.

Confidence and Independence

This confidence gained from travelling and living abroad can also improve how we interact with people. Research by Dr Julia Zimmermann and Dr Franz Neyer compared the personality development of German university students who studied for at least one semester abroad.

The results show that those who went overseas were generally higher in extraversion, were more likely to enjoy being around other people and when they returned home, they tended to be more open towards new experiences, agreeableness and emotional stability.

Compassion also tends to increase as Tom Champion, a student who studied in Singapore for 18 months, says “Seeing the world through a foreigner’s eyes has led me to realise my previously invisible cultural habits and hone my sense of empathy and my ability to understand others.”

Mental Health

Just as it’s important to keep the body physically active to prevent it from degrading (travelling abroad is also excellent for your physical health, by the way), you must keep your mind present and exercise it in order for it to continually be of use. Paul Nussbaum, psychologist and professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said that the benefits of travel are great enough to stave off disease such as Alzheimer’s.

“When you expose your brain to an environment that’s novel and complex or new and difficult, the brain literally reacts,” he explained. The brain grows dendrites, allowing the brain capacity to grow. Although this effect can be achieved by playing tennis, reading Shakespeare, or learning chess, travel is the ideal method for achieving this growth.

“Travel by definition is dropping your brain into a place that’s novel and complex,” he says. “You’re stunned a little bit, and your brain reacts by being engaged and you begin to process on a deep level.”

Again, though, this improvement takes a little effort. “You just don’t want to be rote and passive,” Nussbaum continues. Though the benefits of even a short trip and be worthwhile for the rest of your life. “Travel sticks with us and brings back positive memories and experiences. You have the ability to go back there in your brain.”

So if you are in an advantageous position and have the chance to study abroad, why not take the risk and commit yourself to a new culture- your brain will always thank you for it.


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