I have a fair number of research articles that I have collected and analysed in relation to the psychology of place. I will quite likely write a post on the topic at some point. In the meantime, you can look up Stedman and sense of place.
I was thinking about this in relation to my own travels recently. I live in western Canada. I can get to the rocky mountains, the Pacific ocean,the boreal forest, and the prairies within what, for those of us in western Canada, seems like a fairly reasonable drive. If I want to travel further I can check out many other places as well. What gets me is how often we forget the incredible natural spaces that are so near to home.
Even within Edmonton, we have the longest urban green belt in North America, and yet many edmontonians have never spent any time within it. Aside from the disconnect between humans and nature that has largely fuelled my graduate degrees, I wonder why it takes us going somewhere else in order to appreciate what we have.
This, of course, is not unique to the places we can go, we often hear about it in terms of relationships as well. We become so accustomed to what we have that we fail to actually recognize it anymore. Our brains do this naturally, if they didn’t we would constantly have to process all the information that our brains receive. Instead, our brain learns to filter out things that are the same and only focus on what is different.
Think of the first night in a new location, the ticking clock, the buzzing electronics, the person in the room next to you, are all new so your brain has to process them and make sure they don’t indicate a threat. After a couple nights of the same sounds you start to sleep more soundly. The sounds are now part of the environment that your brain can easily ignore as indicating something non threatening.
There are some pretty good evolutionary reasons that our brains will ignore things that it is used to, first and foremost, it frees up brain power to continue to look for potential threats. And the places we live are part of this. You may have to watch the ground as you walk a new street in a strange town to make sure you aren’t going to trip on something, but are you as focused when you walk in your own neighbourhood? Assuming of course you are someone who walks frequently in your neighbourhood.
So how does all this relate to our desire to visit new and exotic locations rather than take vacations in our own backyards? Most of the time, we do want something different so that our brains actually pay attention to the small things around us. New places are inherently interesting so they draw our attention and in theory help us to reinvigorate our overworked brains.
For me though, every time I travel some place new, I am struck by how amazing everything I have access to more regularly is. Perhaps this is where the staycation comes in. I have done one successful staycation and I think there are two secrets. You must get out of your comfort zone, go to a restaurant you have never been to, do a unique activity, do something to draw your brain in. And two, don’t tell anyone it is a staycation. Tell everyone that you are out of town and inaccessible and then follow through.
I believe that we, in general, need to be better at seeing the uniqueness of where we live. I believe that this recognition will help us to see the value and perhaps make different decisions that affect the future of where we spend most of our time. If it takes some trips to some place else to help us along in this task I don’t think that is a bad thing, but we do need to do something about it when we get back home.