What Neuroscience Says About Working Abroad

Grab and Go Highlights

  • “Bottom-up” processing describes how we processes new experiences and information. 
  • We perceive time to speed up when we are older because we tend to have have fewer and fewer new or unique experiences as we age.
  • One way that we can experience heightened mindfulness is by facing and overcoming unique challenges.

I am sure you have noticed that when you go to the grocery store near your home, the one you have been to a thousand times before, you are not really engaged in the activity itself. You are a bit of a zombie, deep in thought as you drive a familiar road to get there, walk the same aisles you always walk, grab the same foods that you always grab. It is far from an engaging experience.

However, take a trip to a grocery store in, say, Tokyo, and suddenly shopping for groceries is a very engaging activity! You gawk at the interesting fresh foods they sell, you giggle at the funny foreign food brands, you buy different treats to try that you have never tried before. What fun!

But why? Why is it that, no matter how hard you try, you can’t muster this “new experience,” in your local Wal-mart?

Turns out that neuroscience and psychology have the answer.

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Processing

To understand why we don’t find Wal-Mart as engaging as the grocery store in Tokyo, we first need to understand the difference between “top-down” and “bottom-up” processing. In his essay “The Open Mind,” Daniel J. Siegel explains “top-down” as observing things that we are already familiar with (we already have a mental schema of), which causes us to glaze over the experience. As Siegel writes:

For example, if you’ve seen many dogs, you’ll have a general mental model or image of a generic dog. The next time you see a furry canine strolling by, your top-down processing might use that mental model to filter incoming visual input, and you won’t really see the uniqueness of this dog in front of you.

However, bottom-up processing involves new experiences and observing things that we do not already have a pre-established schema for. This new experience catches our attention, and observing this new thing is a far more psychologically involved process. Siegel explains:

If you’ve never seen a spiny anteater before, the first time you come across one on the trail, it will capture all of your attention, engaging your bottom-up processing so that you are seeing with beginner’s eyes. These are eyes leading to circuitry in the brain, not shaping and altering ongoing perception through the top-down filters of prior experience. You’ll be taking in as much pure sensation from eyesight as possible, without the top-down filter altering and limiting what you see now based on what you’ve seen before.

Girl sitting looking into the ocean
“Bottom-up” processing forces your brain into engaging with the present.

This experience of perceiving the world with “beginner’s eyes” explains why the Tokyo grocery store feels special or significant.  Everything is new, and it causes you to step outside of your top-down processing, and in turn makes you feel more alive. Siegel describes it perfectly:

When we travel to a foreign country, bottom-up perceiving can fill our journey with a profound sense of being alive. Time seems extended, days full, and we’ve seen more details in a few hours than we might have seen in a week in our familiar life. What seen means for bottom-up perception is that we become more attentive to novelty, seeing the unique aspects of what is, literally, in front of our eyes.

This explains why your local Wal-Mart leaves a lot to be desired as far as neurological stimulation is concerned. You have seen the Ho-Hos, cheap plastic toys and the endless row of blue cashiers before. There is nothing new to shock your brain out of its disengagement.  

“Fresh Eyes” and our Experience of Time

“Bottom-up” experiences can have a profound affect not just on how we perceive individual experiences, but it can also affect us in a macro-sense by altering our perception of the passage of time. As Siegel explains, bottom-up processing causes time to feel “extended” and “days full.”

In contrast, life is sped up as we sink deeply into routines and habits in familiar environments, and this is especially true as we get older and are forced less and less to perceive the world with “fresh eyes.” In his work Principles of Psychology, Psychologist William James writes:  

In youth we may have an absolutely new experience…every hour of every day…but as each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse.

Girl wrapped in blanket on cliff
We perceive time to pass more quickly when we are having less new experiences.

As our life becomes less littered with new experiences, and we begin to settle into deeply ingrained habits and routines (same coffee shop every morning, same restaurants, same partner), and without those “first” experiences, to awaken our mind, we spend less and less of our time present and mindful, and more time on autopilot.

This causes, as James writes, the weeks to “hallow out” as week upon week passes without any marks of uniqueness or significance, and they ultimately become difficult to differentiate all together.     

Both James, writing in 1890, and Siegel in 2016 are hitting the same nail on the head from two slightly different angles. It is not your imagination toying with you that makes you think that time is moving quickly or an emotional fault of your own that makes you sleepwalk through much of your day: it is your brain and psychology that makes you feel that way, in the same way that time seems to slow down and days are longer when you are enjoying new experiences, such as those experienced living abroad.

Benefits of Mindfulness

Not surprisingly, there are benefits attributed to bottom-up processing and re-engaging with those “new” experiences that cause you to be more aware and engaged in the present. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 22, Ellen Langer cites the positive experimental results on mindfulness. In one experiment, three groups of elderly individuals were studied: over 12 weeks for 20 minutes a day, one group practiced transcendental meditation, one practiced mindfulness, and the other basic relaxation. She writes:

The results were striking. Three years later, no one had died in the TM group and 87.5% of the mindfulness group were still alive, compared to 62.5% of the baseline group.” She goes on to attribute the results of the test to the fact that TM and mindfulness cause a person’s mind to be more alert, and this has a profound affect on their physical health.

Another important aspect of mindfulness, as Langer explains, is the idea of “perceived control.” She describes this sense of control as being achieved by successfully meeting novel challenges. “Everyday routine,” she says, “and expected success do not strengthen one’s sense of control. Perceiving control is not just feeling comfortable. It is mastering–going from unknown to known.”

We perceive ourselves as having more control when we overcome obstacles.
We perceive ourselves as having more control when we overcome obstacles.

Her idea of perceived control can be directly applied to the experience of working abroad: entering a new country, new city, and new job is a novel experience, allowing us to experience bottom-up processing. Our success in facing the challenge of navigating a new culture while also experiencing success at work allows us the perceived control described by Langer by achieving a sense of mastery through acclimating and assimilating to our new environment.

Consider also the potential professional benefits as well. If during the majority of your day you are now experiencing bottom-up processing and experiencing more mindfulness as you navigate all of these new experiences, it follows that in your professional work you will experience an extra pep in your step as your brain is energized by your new environment, allowing you to make more impactful contributions at work. Langer has published a number of books on this exact topic, including On Becoming an Artist.

Concluding Thoughts

It is not your mind deceiving you when you stand in awe at things abroad that you would glaze over at home; you are in a sense jarringly awakened by your brain being forced to process in a new way. You can expect upon moving to a new culture to experience a reinvigorated perspective on life and this comes with significant, tangible benefits to intellectual and physical health, which can be carried over to professional career success and personal fulfillment.  

If you would like more information on Langer’s research, you can visit the Langer Mindfulness Institute as well as find her books on Amazon.

Have you felt that time slows down or you are more engaged when abroad? Have you found ways to achieve it at home?  Let me know on Twitter @12hrdifference.


12HourDifference Newsletter

Every Sunday I send out my weekly 12HourDifference Newsletter with all the latest working abroad information including my posts at 12HD and other resources from around the web. If you want to recieve it, sign up below!

Aaron Horwath Written by:

Since graduating from the University of Portland in 2014, I have worked abroad. Currently, I live and work in Da Nang, Vietnam as the Head of Global Training at an international technology company. Through my blog, I share my experiences of working abroad to give others a glimpse into international life and help them decide if working internationally is right for them.