Being abroad DOES broaden your mind


Painters, writers and poets have long travelled abroad in search of inspiration

Now scientists have concluded that such journeys are indeed a boon for the artistically-inclined.

Residing in a foreign country really can broaden the mind, say Canadian researchers who have conducted the first study of its kind to look at the link between living abroad and creativity.

Pablo Picasso

Great minds think alike: Spaniard Pablo Picasso, who lived in France, is among many artists, poets and writers who have travelled abroad in search of inspiration

Professor William Maddux, of Northwestern University, Illinois, and colleagues conducted five studies to test the idea that living abroad and creativity are linked.

In one study, students who had lived abroad were able to solve a creative problem better than those who had not.

In another - involving a group of mature students living in France - it was found that the more they had adapted to foreign cultures when they lived abroad, the more likely they were to solve creative problems.

Professor Maddux said: ‘Gaining experience in foreign cultures has long been a classic prescription for artists interested in stimulating their imaginations or honing their crafts.

‘But does living abroad actually make people more creative?’

‘It’s a longstanding question that we feel we’ve been able to begin answering through this research’

In both studies, time spent travelling abroad did not matter - only living in a foreign country was related to creativity.

A follow-up study with a group of mature students living in France found that the more they had adapted to foreign cultures when they lived abroad, the more likely they were to solve creative problems.

Co-author Adam Galinsky said: ‘This shows there is some sort of psychological transformation that needs to occur when people are living in a foreign country in order to enhance creativity.

‘This may happen when people work to adapt themselves to a new culture.’

Although these studies show a strong relationship between living abroad and creativity, they do not prove that living abroad and adapting to a new culture actually cause people to be more creative.

To help solve the question of what causes someone to be creative, the authors tried a technique called ‘priming.’

In two experiments, they asked groups of undergraduate students at the Sorbonne in Paris to recall and write about a time they had lived abroad or adapted to a new culture.

Other groups were asked to write about other experiences, such as going to the supermarket, learning a new sport or simply observing but not adapting to a new culture.

The results showed that priming students to mentally recreate their past experiences living abroad or adapting to a new culture caused students to be more creative.

For example, these students drew space aliens and solved word games more creatively than students primed to recall other experiences.

Prof Maddux said: ‘This research may have something to say about the increasing impact of globalisation on the world, a fact that has been hammered home by the recent financial crisis.

‘Knowing that experiences abroad are critical for creative output makes study abroad programmes and job assignments in other countries that much more important, especially for people and companies that put a premium on creativity and innovation to stay competitive.’