How to Enjoy a Memorable Vacation (Through Neuroscience)

Some people like to relax on vacation. Sit by the pool, sip a dacquari, work on the tan. Not me. For me, nothing’s more refreshing and invigorating than stimulating the fear circuitry a little bit. I’m not talking about putting my life in danger; just stepping outside my comfort zone, discovering something new about the world and about myself. And I’m not alone. Adventure travel is the fastest growing segment of the travel industry. Never have there been so many people who want to see and experience the farthest corners of the world, and never have there been so many adventure-tour companies, of such high caliber, offering such a wide range of destinations and activities.

Adventure isn’t just about escaping into the wild, of course. It’s about engaging and committing yourself no matter what you’re doing. “People today have the mindset of wanting to master things,” says Keith Walden of Virtuoso, a network of luxury travel agencies. “They want to go and dive in and learn and be hands on.”

Why? Because of how the brain is wired, of course.

Simply put, being in a fear-provoking situation can put us in a state of mental clarity that’s also intensely memorable. At low to moderate stress levels, a type of protein within the cell walls of neurons called the alpha2-receptor responds to the release of noradrenaline and acts to increase neural efficiency. One of its effects is to boost activity in a brain center called the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex. This is region that’s central to the cognitive control of thoughts and emotions. It helps keep us on target. With the noradrenergic pedal to the metal, we’re vigilant, we’re present, and we can think clearly.

The same jolt of norepinephrine that spurs the cortex to greater mental focus amps up the hippocampus, the region near the amygdala which stores explicit memories. Psychologist Christa McIntyre of UC Irvine let rats walk into either a dark or a well-lit chamber. Being nocturnal creatures, most chose the dark chamber, where they received an electrical shock. The shock wasn’t very strong, and apparently didn’t make much of an impression; rats put in the same situation a day later went right back to the dark chamber. When the rat’s amygdalas were chemically stimulated before they were shocked, however, the story was different. This time they remembered the shock so vividly that they shunned the dark room and preferred the light one. “Emotionally arousing events tend to be well-remembered after a single experience,” says McIntyre, “because they activate the amygdala.”

So while most of us try to avoid fear in the course of our daily lives, it’s the emotionally intense memories that will live with us the longest. And that’s exactly the kind of jolt we get when we seek out adventure on our time off.

“That’s great,” you say, “but how can I find a thrilling way to spend my vacation?” Glad you asked. I’ve got a piece in this month’s issue of Travel + Leisure that rounds up some of my favorite adventure outfitters from around the world, with descriptions of trips that range from month-long hikes in the Himalayas to camel treks across the Sahara. If you get a chance to try even a quarter of them, your hippocampus will be bursting at the seams.