Travel & the Brain

The Traveller’s Dilemma: How Much Planning is Too Much? Insights from the Yerkes-Dodson Law

With travel info on the web overflowing like a garbage heap and lost faith in the Lonely Planet, we find ourselves unsure of how to navigate the tenuous line between too much and too little planning. Encounters with the unknown abide by the Yerkes-Dodson Law – you have to find that sweet spot in the middle.

We left Medellin with very few arrangements in place for our time in El Salvador. This decision, or the lack thereof, had a lot to do with a certain type of planning fatigue that develops when you start abandoning your travel guide. Although it feels gung-ho to be on the move without the Lonely Planet, inevitably, this lands you in the hands of Mr Google… one hundred billion travel blogs laid out before you. The win in free information is quickly lost in time spent at a computer screen.

I imagine the unrelenting growth of the internet like 21st century urban development. Construction sites buzzing, high-rises mushrooming all over the place, new shopping complexes overshadowing the substance of slowly established street life. Most ominously, I imagine the dumpsites on the outskirts sprawling and creeping up towards the sky, growing each day with no where to go. This is what information on the internet feels like to me. If it is really a cloud, I fear the day it rains.

This is your terrain if you decide to travel without a guidebook, because for most of us, total spontaneity loses it charm very quickly – almost in direct proportion to the weight of your backpack. And if anything is more uncomfortable than sweating out your clothes as you heave your luggage from one fully-booked guesthouse to another, it is the uncomfortable feeling of “not knowing”.

This is becoming a central theme in my writing… the role of forecast in anchoring ourselves to safety in this turbulent world.

We Like Predictability, We Like Control

Personality traits like “control freak”, “Type A”, “neurotic” etc, have in common a person’s underlying, immutable need to have full awareness of the events and details that pave the path ahead of them. In other words, this kind of control is about making sure that no card is left unturned so that the situation is fully predictable. People on the extreme end of this spectrum probably don’t venture too far out, and if they do, you’ll likely find them on a package tour or with their pre-booked and itemised itinerary close at hand.

Not everyone experiences unpredictability as something to retreat from but the desire to be in control is common because it reflects the deep functional ‘infrastructure’ of the brain. Read the text box titled “The Brain as a Predictive Machine” for a recap or a related article here).

A trusty guidebook functions in many ways like a proxy for the brain’s own grasp on reality. It equips you with a set of predictions and certainties so that the road ahead is spotted with street lamps and not in total darkness. Information on the web can serve a similar purpose but at the same time, it is more like a never ending series of glowing forks in the road, offering its own set of uncertainties and doubt. This can be exhausting and particularly infuriating. Because even if you do stumble upon a few great travel blogs, chances are your journey will differ in significant ways, leaving knowledge gaps. Back to trawling the bottomless web?

Herein lies the conundrum. What do you do? A) Return to the travel guide method even though you know this will send you surreptitiously on the Lonely Planet’s backpacking package tour. Or B) Turf the book, bear the frustration and use the Net to scope out the “fringe” – everything that doesn’t quite get ordained with Lonely Planet status. Or C) Abandon all desire for control and wing it, asking questions and hauling ass around when you arrive.

Option B in Playa El Tunco

We went for option B during our first few days in El Salvador. We did enough research to get an idea of the possibilities for accommodation and local transport but we didn’t make any reservations and set our hopes on anything in particular.

When you don’t have set plans, its easier to cope with mishaps. Our flight from Bogota to San Salvador, which was set to leave at 5am (3am airport arrival, 2am “wake-up”, AKA no sleep) got delayed until 9.40am. Those 6 and a bit unnecessary hours hanging around the airport were rather gruelling, but nothing like the panic that most passengers with connecting flights seemed to be experiencing. Missing a connection can have several financially costly knock-on effects if you have reservations in place, but we had no where to be.

In the rainy – and therefore the low season – the beach village of Playa el Tunco, just a 45 minute taxi ride from San Salvador airport, is not a bad place to land after little sleep and even less preparation. We were dropped outside Hotel La Guitarra and 5 minutes later we were settled in our mozzie-proof bungalow. In times like these, the lack of hot water in the shower is a blessing. The intense heat and humidity was the only factor that came close to contending with our exhaustion levels.

Not being surfers, we were a little out of place in El Tunco. The heavy rains and formidable waves wash away every grain of sand during the wet season so the beach with its large volcanic, sea-churned pebbles was not very hospitable. We regarded the ocean with longing, like caged animals in a zoo. Fortunately, from our second morning onwards we moved to Hotel Mompelia which is set in a verdant, tranquil garden and spent most of our time in the pool exchanging stories with fellow travellers.


Having stayed in Medellin for two months, it was exciting to find ourselves in a new country, a new continent in fact, encountering unusual scenery and different cultural traditions. The feeling is of a secret passageway in your mind, suddenly opening up. New paths and new items on the menu. “Papusas” for example, which are little stuffed corn pancakes, not unlike the Colombian “arepas” but different enough to rouse interest.

There is clear delight in the novel and peculiar. This is the appeal of travel and the paradox of the unknown, where novelty can be a potent source of amusement but too often, a harrowing source of fear. Why is this the case?

The Psychology of Nonmonotonic Effects

In the psychological literature this paradox is referred to as a “nonmonotonic effect”, a phenomenon whereby positive effects reach an inflection point at which time they begin to turn into negative ones. When everything in life is predictable, it feels boring, so increasing the unknown brings novelty and excitement. But too much unpredictability then becomes unbearable, inducing fear instead of delight. Check out this graph below.

Aristotle was one of the first theorists to argue that well-being and virtuous traits are functions that exist at the mean between deficiency and excess. When we look at how people handle fear, for example, too little is associated with cowardice, too much is linked to recklessness, but “just enough” we call courage. Things are good when they hit the “sweet spot”. This is the Goldilocks law, not too little, not too much, just the right amount.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law

The Yerkes-Dodson Law (1908) is a scientific principal that sounds a lot more fancy but expresses this same idea. The law predicts that performance increases with mental or physiological arousal or exertion, but only up to a point. When you go into over-drive, performance begins to decline.

Studies looking at the effects of cortisol provide support for the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Cortisol has a reputation as the “stress hormone” and indeed it does underlie the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety, but it is also responsible for increasing blood sugar and making sure your brain is aroused enough to pay attention to the world around you. For example, cortisol levels are highest in the morning, around 8am.

Too little cortisol causes disorders like Addison’s disease which leads to fatigue, muscle weakness, low blood pressure, confusion and even psychosis. Cortisol is also important for encoding memories, especially the kind that are referred to as “flash-bulb” memories, usually recollections of intense or frightening events. On the other end of the spectrum, too much cortisol over long periods of time has been linked to depression and destroys cells in the hippocampus, the brain’s main hub for memory.

The Case of Travel Planning: Why Some Spontaneity Feels Good

When it comes to planning as a way of managing the “unknown”, you don’t want to develop such a strong impression of a place so that it feels overly familiar with few surprises. Nor do you want to set yourself up for disappointment by over-planning and having your imagination construe a fantasy land. If you leave the planning to someone else entirely and join a package tour, you might feel less anxious but you would have paid with choice and freedom. Yet by keeping all doors open, hardly planing at all, let’s face it, you run the risk of a night on the streets and perhaps you won’t even know if that’s dangerous or not.

Its hard to find middle-ground, but its worth the effort in the long run.

Discovering novelty brings about delight because it signals an opportunity for learning. Learning is fundamental to our psychological growth as individuals and survival as a species, and as such, evolution has made sure that learning feels good. When you encounter something novel and you feel a sense of joy, these hedonic feelings function like the stamp that binds the event into memory.

When things feel good, this is a pretty reliable indication that dopamine is being released. You can read more about the feel good properties of dopamine and how it sustains the “travel bug” if you go here.

A moderate amount of exposure to the unknown is pleasurable because it’s the brains way of making sure that you get out into the world, learning as much as you can. But – exploration of the unknown carries inherent risk. Venturing into a dark cave might lead you to a sanctuary of warmth and protection, but there you might also encounter all manner of creepy crawlies or worse.

Because of the inevitable gamble in the unknown, the brain responds proportionally with vigilance, activating the fight-or-flight system, as it would to any other threat, such as the sight of a burglar… or a rapidly approaching spider. A little bit of the unknown and threat mode switches on, ticking along in the background. But a lot of it and all guns blazing.

We spotted this guy on the El Cani trek in Pucon, Chile.

At the point of excess, there is “competition” in the brain. Cortisol 2, Dopamine 1. Under these circumstance, it is more critical to your survival that you react to fear and not delight because if you don’t, you may not live for another day of learning. This general tendency is referred to as “loss aversion”. We are more sensitive to the prospect of loss than the prospect of gain.

Some people with avoidant personality styles spend most of their lives managing loss, avoiding situations that could potentially cause harm. In the process, they lose out on opportunity and life’s great adventure. Others prefer to live on the edge, they are the adrenaline seekers who thrive off the biochemical rush of novelty and fear. Not surprisingly, like the inverted-U shape of the Yerkes-Dodson law, most of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle, not far, in fact, from the sweet spot.

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