Travel & the Brain

Arrival and surreal moments in Copacabana

If you’ve ever embarked on a grand trip, you’ll know that the surrealism of the experience tends to set in right from the moment you join the check-in queue at the airport. Saying goodbye to family makes it a bitter-sweet affair, but as soon as you pass security, its all excitement. Unless you have a fear of flying, of course. But I’m not in the least bit afraid of aeroplanes and I’d done the background research to check that our absurdly cheap flight with TAAG airlines from Cape Town to Rio de Janiero had nothing to do with skimming on maintenance. I urge all readers to have a look at the airfares that TAAG offers to Portuguese destinations around the world. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

A bit of advice, once you’ve landed at Rio airport, the best way into town is to hop on a big navy-blue bus that stops outside on the street at arrivals. They have “Executivo” written on them and you pay on the bus. Its much cheaper than a taxi and probably as efficient. This bus took us straight into the heart of Copacabana, just two blocks from where our Airbnb apartment was located. This was a good thing because the humidity in the air hits you like a wall and doesn’t make for fun while you’re still dressed in your “aeroplane clothes”.

We opened the door to our 4th floor home for the month. On Airbnb the listing was described as “Bucolic apt in Copacabana”. You should be able to find a great 1-bedroom in this part of the city for about $1500 for the month, though don’t be shy to request a discount. This was the first time I’d heard the word “bucolic” and I learned that it means ‘relating to the pleasant aspects of the countryside and country life’. The place was situated in an alcove that backed against a forested hill. There were high ceilings and wide open windows. Two large balconies obscured the divide between the inside and the outside. The apartment did feel like it offered a slice of the wilderness.

It felt surreal to be there in Rio, in Copacabana. A wash of familiarity, having visited previously in 2010, gave my initial encounters a dream-like quality. Familiar but not. Fantastical.

Was it about being “too good to be true” or the funny feeling of having the trip materialize, after so many years of it occupying an island in our thoughts about the future? I wouldn’t say that we spent an inordinate amount of time planning for it. In fact, probably the opposite. We had the basics covered – that being money, passports, accommodation for the first month. And a vague plan of where we wanted to go.

Surreal experiences are thought to occur when the real bumps up against the unreal. Not unlike magic, which the English dictionary describes as ‘a quality of being beautiful and delightful in a way that seems remote from daily life’. Think of the paitings of Dali in which the unconscious protrudes into the imagery of everyday objects. For me, I think it was the very strong emotion stirred up by arriving in an exotic place that juxtaposed against the over-drive of my brain’s perceptual “machine” as it grappled to make sense of the novel environment.

Normally things operate in a fine balance. We encounter new peculiarities at a pace slow enough for the brain to form reasoned expectations so that our emotions don’t overwhelm us. But we travel for that very reason, to stir things up by confronting the unfamiliar.

This is how the brain deals with new information. The latest “big theory” in brain science (Bayesian predictive processing) is that our actual experience is a product of the matching between what’s called “top-down” and “bottom-up” streams of information. Exactly how that matching occurs is where things get complicated, but I’ll keep it simple here. Top-down refers to the beliefs and ideas we form on a very implicit level about the world around us. They are there even though we may not be aware of them, like biases. Think of this top-down information as a kind of net, swooping down to gather information – bottom-up information, that is – the kind of data that our sense organs receive and feed upwards to our brain.

Evolution favours efficiency, and the brain, like any other living entity, runs according to tight quotas. It must do its job of perceiving in the quickest, most efficient manner. This is achieved by being selective about what bottom-up information it uses to inform perception. The least, but most relevant data is selected and fed upwards based on the expectations determined by the top-down “net”. Our brains sample the world, guided by what we think we’ll encounter. Its not far from a self-fulfilling cycle. For example, you may have the top-down idea that walking along Copacabana beach at night is dangerous (and as it happens, you would be right). If you found yourself in that situation confronted by an approaching figure with an object in hand, you’re very likely to pay more attention to bits of information that confirm your hypothesis. You’ll probably perceive that object as a knife and that person as a man instead of the woman carrying driftwood after a game of “fetch” with her trailing dog. Which would in all likelihood be an oversized Golden retriever, based on my own experience of dog walkers in Rio.

With this heavy reliance on best guesses, it puts into perspective the topsy-turvy range of emotion that a foreign place can stir up, where we have little to go on about the events that might transpire around the next corner. The neat divide between the normal and the abnormal, so tightly conditioned by conventions and familiarity , begins to unravel. Things can feel surreal.

Strangely enough, some believe that many of the bizarre perceptual experiences linked to psychosis come about because of a failure to appropriately “gate” information. Here “gate” refers to the processes of controlling information as it passes up from the senses to the brain. Without the selectivity, and even the active suppressing of information, the sure footing of reality can give way to the unreal. Maybe the disruption of the brain’s normal gating abilities is all part of the magic of travelling?