Your Brain on Study Abroad

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The Experience Changes Lives, and Neurons, a Scholar Says

By Karin Fischer for the Chronicle of Higher Education

Ask anyone who has ever studied abroad about the experience, and they'll say it changed their life. Turns out, international study actually changes students' brains.


Laura Hampson (second from right) participated in the Spanish Language and Service Learning program in Peru. New research suggests studying abroad causes students’ brains to adapt and create new neuron patterns.

Going overseas, said Yuliya Kartoshkina, a doctoral student at the University of North Dakota, "rewires the brain."

The reason study abroad can pack such a neurological wallop is related to how memory works, said Ms. Kartoshkina, who is writing her dissertation on the subject.

As she explained to an attentive audience during a session at the annual meeting of Nafsa: Association of International Educators, individual experiences stimulate one of the 100 billion neurons with which people are born. More-powerful, or repeated, experiences stimulate multiple neurons.

Over time, those neurons fire together in an established pattern, creating memories and expectations and shaping how people perceive the world.

Study abroad upsets those set patterns of learning, and it's especially potent because it affects multiple senses.

"Our brain is wired to recognize patterns, including certain elements of culture," Ms. Kartoshkina said. "By growing up in one culture, our brain is wired in a certain way."

In neurological terms, culture shock is the brain trying to use old neuron patterns to interpret a new environment. The more time a student spends in a new environment, the more the brain adapts and creates new neuron patterns.

Learning a new language, in particular, stimulates neural networks, and the more languages people speak, the more networks they have, Ms. Kartoshkina said.

Old and New Patterns of Thinking

Study-abroad advisers can use the lessons of how the brain works to better help students prepare to go abroad and adjust more quickly to a new culture.

Holding workshops for students before they go overseas can "lay foundations for new neural networks" by talking about cultural differences they might encounter or brainstorming ways to deal with unexpected situations, Ms. Kartoshkina said.

Once students are abroad, engagement with the local community can hasten the process of building new neuron patterns. And having students write or blog about their experience can help them make connections with their existing ways of thinking and learning.

While colleges and study-abroad programs already do much to help students adjust to going overseas, Ms. Kartoshkina said they needed to pay as much attention to ways of easing students' return home. That's because new neural networks have formed, and transitioning back to old patterns of thinking can be bumpy.

The key, Ms. Kartoshkina said, is to find ways to preserve and integrate the old and new patterns of thinking. For example, she said, one student who returned from overseas tried to look at her home culture as if it was a fresh culture, bridging the experience abroad and back on the campus.

Ms. Kartoshkina comes by her interest in cultural neuroscience and its relationship to study abroad naturally—she is originally from Lviv, Ukraine. She plans to publish her thesis soon and hopes to continue her work in the area, potentially using MRIs to examine changes in the brain.

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