Why do people yearn for adventure? Just about everyone does it, to one degree or another. For some a trip to an unfamiliar part of town or to a shop rarely visited is adventurous. Others pursue it into far-flung lands, through places torn by war and calamity, up mountains, amidst exotic cultures, and a very few of us find ourselves rocketed into space. Some find adventure in language immersion, in bouts of drinking, in tranquil hikes through virginal forests, in drugs, in driving, in the life exalting moments of copulation, and in the wild exhilaration that accompanies flirtation with death.
So why do we do it? Adventure is almost always taxing; financially, mentally, and sometimes even mortally. We spend all our money, go through stresses and discomforts untold, experience fear, allow our hearts to be broken, risk injury and demise, and oftentimes we encounter the dismay of failure. If I were more arithmetically minded and took a moment to examine adventure in terms of cost/benefit analysis, I might be inclined to stay inside today and not take my chances out there in the big, scary world.
But that’s the strange and truly wonderful thing—for some reason I can’t keep myself from venturing out, if for no other reason than to see what I can see. Against all logic, common sense, and often any regard for safety, humans continually let our curiosity get the best of us. Our curiosity takes us places; whether you be a shut-in bravely sailing into the sea of agoraphobia that is your front yard, or Magellan casting off for what-may-come.
It’s exciting, really, when you think just how silly and foolish the human creature is. We do things just for the hell of it.
Why cross an ocean? Because I can!
Why learn Portuguese? Because I can!
Why try parasailing? Why visit that dingy looking bar where all the bikers hang out? Why go to the moon? Why ask that girl out for a drink? (Which can be just as difficult as getting to the moon.) Why eat that funky looking dish that appears to be spider legs protruding from a bed of steamed rice? I suppose you get the picture.
What benefit could possibly be derived from all of this silly behavior? It’s not like I’m propagating the species by climbing a mountain. Yet still, there seems to be something inherent in humans that pushes us out and on toward the unknown.
Every time a person encounters a novel experience, new synapses are constructed which develop pathways between the billions of neurons that make up his or her brain. These open up new and increasingly complex routes for thought to follow, allowing for more parts of the brain to receive stimulation, in turn providing a person with a better ability to think creatively and solve problems. The more complicated the experience, the more new synapses. Deep immersion into a foreign culture shapes the brain in far more ways than, say, deciding to be bold and purchase a new kind of fabric softener. But in terms of their elementary functions, both situations can be considered adventures as they are outside the norm for the individual experiencing them, and both cause new paths through the brain by varying degrees. Essentially, the more often and complex your adventures, the more new ways of thinking you develop.
As any frequent traveler knows—especially those who visit places far beyond the borders of their experience—trotting the globe tends to instill one with an increasingly open worldview. This is because when you’re traveling, everything is new—languages, food, architecture, art, fashion, landscapes, and day to day living. That’s a lot of new synapses, a lot of new ways of thinking. And as they get used to it, travelers tend to become increasingly willing to try new things and to be more receptive to new cultures and ideas.
Suddenly new experience isn’t just building connections between neurons—you’ve actually started developing paths between yourself and other people, thereby transcending the power of a single mind and the barriers instilled by borders, religion, ethnicities, and so forth.
In a closed community, very little change and progress occurs. The limited potential for complex, novel experience simply doesn’t afford people the opportunity to develop new ways of thinking at a rapid rate. But when people begin leaving then returning to a community, it becomes charged with fresh ideas—new technologies and medicines, innovative social concepts, and a plethora of important new information, not the least of which is a description of the outside world. Think how quickly world events began to progress upon the circumnavigation of the world, which made us a bit less unsure of our place in the universe.
The cycle goes like this:
Some fellow or fellowess decides that he or she wants to strike out into the big, wide world and take a good look around. They go off on an “adventure”, experience new things and build their connection to other tribes and cultures, then return home to tell what they saw. They bring new ideas and embolden others to head off on adventures and develop new pathways of their own. This is how information spread from place to place (before the advent of the Internet, but we’ll get to that), and how connections were forged between different peoples. This has been happening since the earliest days of our species, when we were nothing more than roaming bands on the savanna trying to innovate new ways to improve our chances of survival.
What it all boils down to is that the drive toward adventure is a survival instinct. It is the thing that casts aside our sense of self-preservation in favor of curiosity and a drive to increase the knowledge of the community for the benefit of its propagation.
Sometimes, however, the ideas brought home by adventurers are not well received, and they return with concepts that the status quo views with suspicion. The problem is that the majority of people in a community do not go on highly complex adventures, and therefore they do not develop their ability to form inter-cultural connections, oftentimes making them distrustful of foreign concepts. To make matters worse, what begins as a spark of distrust can be easily fanned into a flame of alarm by the people in power who have something to lose if certain new ideas were accepted by the populace.
Suddenly any idea that involves a more even distribution of resources becomes scornfully branded as “European Socialism”, or a group of people becomes convinced that it needs the right to own machine guns due to the fear that the UN is going to invade. I recently received an email from an American woman who read a story I’d written about an experience I’d had while living in Paris. In her message she ranted about my misguided sympathy for the Muslims who were taking over the French government. Besides the fact that I think it is clear to just about everyone that Muslims are not taking over the French government, the woman was wrong in thinking that the story made any mention of Muslims at all. I re-read it carefully to see if perhaps there was any way it could be reasonably misconstrued, but no, she had conjured it out of her own fear and ignorance.
There are many who say that the Internet is the newest and best weapon against such ignorance, but alas, while it is undoubtedly a powerful tool when it comes to the distribution of information, we do not see it bringing people together, but rather keeping them apart. People receive their information from the sources that cater to their social beliefs, and a glance at social networks shows them to be the front line of an often misinformed battle between worldviews.
We do have at our disposal, however, a tool that has never failed in our endeavor to build bridges between different cultures which has been with us since the dawn of our species—our sense of adventure. While the easy access to creature comforts has diminished this sense, you can still see it present in all of us, in one form or another. It’s why so many people like rollercoasters and scary movies. It’s why we like trying new restaurants and attempting new recipes. The small adventures people allow themselves to experience are a good sign. It means we still have the capacity to be humans rather than drones.
Curiosity may kill the cat, but I believe it may be one of the only things that can save the human race. The time has come to allow our curiosity to be aroused beyond tasting the newest flavor of Hot Pockets or trying different air freshener scents. We need to become curious about ourselves as a species, to go on the adventures that will bring us face to face with the rest of humanity. The World Out There can no longer exist as a series of images on a screen, as some abstraction that will never be tasted or smelled or touched.
As of the late 20th century, the ability to travel safely and affordably to just about any place on the Earth became available for the first time ever. It is time for us to start taking advantage of this amazing gift that just a few centuries ago would have been unimaginable. It is time for us to strike out and develop the synapses in our brains and our connections to other people, because if we remain closed-in on ourselves, if we don’t continue to build the bridges between us that will result in the creation of a more globally-minded spirit, I fear that soon our adventures may be over.