Have you ever arrived at a destination and had an instantaneous sense that you “knew” or “understood” the place? Perhaps you suddenly felt perfectly “at home” or felt completely integrated and comfortable in the place.
Or perhaps you had the opposite reaction; something about the place gave you an immediate sense that this was definitely not “your scene,” and you couldn’t wait to get out of there even though you had just arrived.
Not long ago I travelled to Boise, Idaho. When my plane was coming in over the high desert surrounding this city in the northwest of the United States, I looked out the window and saw Boise and its high plain and had an immediate sense of well-being; an intense feeling that this city was my kind of place. It was like “coming home.”
On the other hand, my wife and I once arrived in a famous medieval town in Europe (which shall go unnamed) and we both immediately felt a sense of foreboding, depression, and claustrophobia. It just didn’t feel right; and we knew that we had to get out of there as soon as possible. This, I should add, was not the experience of our travel companions nor of others I have spoken to about the place since our visit. We still use the name of that city when we are in a travel destination or travel situation that just doesn’t feel right.
In his recent book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell explores the world of unconscious perception and cognition; what he refers to as “the kind of thinking that happens in the blink of an eye.”
This fascinating book investigates in great detail how our unconscious minds make judgements or conclusions about all kinds of experiences and phenomena in the first two seconds. Gladwell makes a very good case for this powerful form of “thinking” which he prefers not to call intuition because, in his view, intuition is generally seen as not being a rational thought process, rather a reaction based on feelings.
As he points out in the book, we are taught not to make “snap judgments,” but to take our time in assessing a situation before “making up our minds” about it.
As travel journalists, we often encourage people not to make flying visits to a destination, and instead to settle in as best as possible, spend quality time, get a real sense of the place, and to get as up close and personal with the place as possible before assessing it.
However, Gladwell shows clearly that what he refers to as “thin slicing” (a psychological term) is how we can quite accurately sum up many situations based on the thinnest slice of an experience. And, he says, this is done rapidly; suggesting that “first impressions” may after all be quite correct.
Gladwell says that he wants people to take rapid cognition seriously and that his book Blink is “concerned with the smallest components of our everyday lives with the content and origin of those instantaneous impressions and conclusions that bubble up whenever we meet a new person, or confront a complex situation, or have to make decision under conditions of stress.
Travel, especially for the independent traveller, can be a stressful business. Travel destinations are complex “situations” that frequently require that we make quick decisions; and often we have to do this when we are tired, jetlagged, or having to interpret all kinds of cultural messages that our brains may not necessarily be prepared for.
On the positive side, I now know from reading this rather convincing book, that I can also give myself permission to access a destination in more depth by allowing my unconscious to come along for the ride when I travel.
For more information on Blink and Malcolm Gladwell, visit his website at www.gladwell.com.