What is ‘Vacation Brain’—and Is It Real?

You know that lovely mind fog you feel when you’re on a trip? Experts have been studying what it is, why it happens, and whether it’s just a figment of our relaxed imaginations.

People at beach relaxing under umbrella

Going on vacation can help free up brain space for creative thinking.

Photo by Colin Sabatier/Unsplash

Travel blogger Michelle Endo spent three years running kids’ clubs on cruise ships, mostly for Royal Caribbean, and recalls the happy hubbub that defined embarkation day. As thousands streamed onto the ship, the 32-year-old from San Francisco would be part of the welcoming team, helping folks acclimatize to their new home-from-home. She’d spend hours giving directions and answering questions, sporting a bright yellow T-shirt emblazoned with the words I’m your Royal welcome. Ask me anything. And they did. “More than once, I was asked ‘Do these stairs go up or down?’ and ‘Which elevators run horizontally from the front to the back of the ship?’,” she recalls, “And my immediate reaction was to think it was a joke, or they’re trying to make fun conversation.”

Endo quickly learned that these were not jokes, but sincere, albeit bizarre, requests, so she would explain that stairs worked both ways, and elevators were the same as on land—think of them as vertical people carriers. “When you’re on vacation, a cruise, or a new environment, your brain is trying to adjust and process so many things at once,” she says of these moments, “The unfamiliarity might cause them to question everything—since the ship was different from regular life, they assumed everything else would be different, too, including how the stairs worked.”

Call it vacation brain. It’s that hard-to-define mindset, triggered when we step outside our everyday—a tropical cocktail of confusion, relaxation, and disengagement. It’s something we crave when on vacation, and cherish at the end, an inspiration to apply a similar no worries-focused approach to everyday life. But does this exist, or is it a figment of our imagination, cooked up by one too many rum punches and the chance to step away from a screen? And if it does exist, how does it manifest in our brains? Most importantly perhaps, how do we hold onto that much-needed mindset once we’ve unpacked the last bag?

Charlotte Russell is a practicing therapist and cofounder of The Travel Psychologist, a site that explores the psychological implications of taking trips. She says that vacation brain is no sunstroke-derived delusion. “We’re absolutely not making it up,” Russell says of the idea that our brains enter psychological airplane mode when we’re traveling. She recalls a recent solo trip of her own, where she spent several weeks traveling around Italy and Greece. When her husband asked where to pick her up at trip’s end, Russell was dreamily disengaged; without thinking, she said he’d find her at the same place where he’d dropped her off. The catch: she was flying a different airline and from a different country, so that advice wouldn’t hold. “In my work mode, I’d be very on the ball, but I was in vacation mode.”

We’re absolutely not making it up.
Charlotte Russell

Still, Russell says that there has been little formal study around how the brain unplugs while traveling, mostly because there’s no financial incentive behind funding such research—few firms could monetize the findings, whatever they were, and the sense seems to be more shrugging than curious: If they’re happy, let them be. So she posits her own theory on vacation brain, though, effectively another name for one part of the Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) model developed by professor Paul Gilbert. The CFT model divides the brain into three systems, each designed to fulfill different functions for us: The drive system, for example, is a goal-oriented motivator, focusing on money and finding mates; and the threat system keeps us out of harm’s way. Gilbert’s third system of the CFT model—the soothing system—is what Russell sees as the source of vacation brain. “It’s about a sense of connection to other people, relaxation and rest, that connecting to ourselves and other people is restorative, and that’s where the idea of vacation brain sits,” she says. “We slip into a different neural circuitry so those pathways become more active.”

Adam Galinksy, a social psychologist who teaches at Columbia Business School, adds, “When we’re outside of our normal routine, we oftentimes take a step back and see the big picture.” Far from emptying our brains—and asking about horizontal elevators—we’re freeing up space for more creative, constructive thinking. “There’s a sense of relaxation combined with cognitive engagement—low cortisol but high engagement? To me, that’s the glory of vacations.” Think of it as akin to the idea of soft fascination, when our attention is held by a less stimulating activity and so allows the brain to reflect and introspect—it’s a phenomenon often linked with our love of being in nature, from a beach to a woodland. Soft fascination and vacation brain, then, could simply be different names for the same thing.

Experts caution that the way to engage vacation brain isn’t simply via a fly-and-flop that contrasts sharply with the drudgery of daily life, empty of obligations. Instead, the most effective trip is one that straddles activity and inactivity, according to Andrew Stevenson. He’s a senior lecturer at the UK’s Manchester Metropolitan University and author of the recently published book, The Psychology of Travel. “I would define vacation brain as a positive outlook or frame of mind, which leaves you open to experience,” he says. The best way to shortcut to such a mindset is a trip that combines two elements, hedonistic and eudaemonic. The former is jargon for fun-seeking (that fly-and-flop), while the latter refers to self-improvement, the impulse to visit galleries in a destination, perhaps, or take a local cooking class. Trips that blend both elements, Stevenson says, have been shown in research studies to both bolster happiness while away and prolong the feeling once you return.

Indeed, many Americans struggle more with retaining the benefits of vacation mode than readjusting to real life: The American Psychological Association’s 2018 Work and Well-Being survey reported that, of the 1,512 working adults polled, 40 percent reported that the mental benefits of vacation were gone within a few days of arriving home—and 24 percent said the benefits evaporated immediately. All too often, as Columbia’s Galinsky says, arriving home triggers what he dubs “the vacation hangover—you’ve had a great time, feeling really relaxed and the next morning, omigod, your brain is killing you.”

Amit Sood, executive director of the Global Center for Resiliency and Wellbeing and former professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, has his own suggestion for how to activate hedonistic and eudaemonic instincts to maximize your benefits back home: voluntourism. “You come back not just temporarily energized, you come back inspired, and that inspiration will last for you for a very long time.”

If you aren’t interested in turning a trip into a do-gooding detour, don’t worry—there are alternatives. Charlotte Russell suggests coming home a day earlier than typical, for instance—Saturday rather than Sunday, perhaps, on a weeklong trip, building in a shock absorber before the daily grind restarts. Consider, too, the power of the long weekend. Russell points to a study in Australia that identified those as being in the Goldilocks Zone—just right for getting benefits while away as well as on the return. “It looked at the effects of short trips of around three or four days on brain restoration,” she says. “They found that a trip like that can have restorative effects, both in terms of people reporting they felt restored, but also that they did better on cognitive tests.”

British-born, New York–based Mark Ellwood has lived out of a suitcase for most of his life. He is editor-at-large for luxury bible Robb Report and columnist for Bloomberg Luxury. Recent stories have led him to hang out with China’s trendsetters in Chengdu and learn fireside raps from cowboy poets in Wyoming.
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