The bonus you get from living overseas

by Janice Nigro

The idea of living overseas always captivated me. I imagined myself speaking a second language fluently and sharing my life with a man with an accent. I derived this cliché of a fantasy from some combination of movies, National Geographic, my Sicilian background, and Spanish class in 5th grade. I blew an opportunity in my university years-I asked my father if I could go to the Università di Bologna to participate in a program to learn Italian one summer. He flat out said no.

But the idea percolated. I filled my world over the years with people from foreign places. I tried to learn Italian in an evening class in San Francisco. I watched as some of my classmates gave up their lives in the USA and embarked on “La Dolce Vita.”

And then one day I found myself winging my way for a life overseas with a couple of suitcases containing all that I thought I would need to live for six months. But it wasn’t to a warm, romance language speaking country like Italy or Spain, it was to Norway, to Bergen, a more often gray than sunny city but where the mountains in dramatic beauty dive straight into the sea. I had no romantic story to tell when asked why I went to Norway. No Viking kidnap. A straightforward invitation to learn some lab techniques. I jumped at the opportunity, even though as a teenager I swore I would never visit Scandinavia again.

The agreement was for six months. I naively gave up my life in San Francisco and boarded my plane. Unsure of the outcome, I framed the experience with a planned dive trip before and one after. Only there was no after. Six months turned into a little over seven years.

I immersed myself in my Scandinavian life. I did what Norwegians did. Some things didn’t make sense to do under a six month contract. Like getting my own apartment, rather than renting a room, and buying enough furniture to make it seem as if I had planned to live there forever. I took Norwegian classes, even though Norwegians speak English better than I do. I tried lutefisk and akevit. I fell deeply for a Viking. I camped, I skied, I lit candles for breakfast during the dark winter days. I let them trick me into eating rakfisk and dressing up for Halloween.

Intercultural experience improves creativity

Without knowing it, I was maximizing the benefits of an overseas living experience. Psychologists have found that a stint living in another country has more to offer than just the potential for swashbuckling tales of adventure: You bring back a more creative version of yourself.

Psychologists and neuroscientists are interested in this topic today for a couple of reasons: people can easily travel around the world for business or pleasure and they don’t always return the way they left.

I can easily make a list of my unique Norwegian adventures and accomplishments, but psychologists say that my brain likely got a kick in the pants when I moved there, the kind that has a measurable effect on my creative abilities. Their methods to assess creativity might be on the side of science-lite, but having been through the experience and based on what’s known anecdotally, I think there’s something to it. The mental processes you go through as an expat to function in your new world, the constant comparing of your two cultures, is like a type of training, a learning process, that is somehow linked to creativity in the human brain.

In my own profession, many scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize for work performed in a country other than the one they were born in. I, however, had what I would call minor epiphanies. I often saw how some of the knowledge that was second nature to me in the USA could be uniquely adapted to the environment I was now in. It could also be a source of frustration when my ideas fell flat on my Norwegian audience.

Exposure to new ideas and concepts 

Even for a western culture, there were plenty of differences to wake up, at that time, my California brain. Take for instance the unexpected sight and aroma of the dried carcass of lamb (pinekjøtt which is delicious when prepared right) hanging on the grocery store wall during my first holiday season there.

The aroma jolted me out of my routine perception of a jaunt through the grocery store in the USA. There in front of me was a new (actually a very old) way of preparing lamb which forced me start to think about the traditions and realities of living in a country that had been poor and largely agricultural until the 1970s. The lamb was so-called traditional food. Although my immediate thought was a comic image of myself stuck in my apartment with a rehydrated animal, it was only the beginning in my cataloguing of the differences between my homeland and Norway.

Such differences though are the basis for triggering new combinations of all the bits of information stored in your brain. Pinekjøtt isn’t the best example, but Starbucks was born of one man’s experience in cafés in Italy. Or take the story of the Frenchman living in New York City who combined the French pastry he knew growing up with the idea of an American donut. Voilà, the cronut, a delicious croissant-donut hybrid pastry that went viral across the world within a few months.

In a new environment, that odd piece of information stored deep in your brain might have a purpose. I’m sure I thought about the practicality of waterproofing phones (a cross between living in Bergen and my underwater photography) years before Apple did it.

Living overseas might be a kind of shortcut. Like going to college, living abroad is an intense period of time packed with unlimited opportunities to expand your breadth of knowledge. The simple side to the multicultural experience is the listing of these new details and adventures that are often very routine. Food is different. The days are longer in summer and very short in winter. The rain constant. The hair wax super duper. The population is less diverse (and tall). The language is different. You might use a ferry, motor scooter or a bicycle to get around. Simple tweaks to what you might already know, but over a long time, they start to effect the way you think about how to live, especially if/when you go back home.

Europeans also enjoy more holiday time. Activities I didn’t have time for at home, I suddenly had time for. I was able to travel to even more countries or cities I didn’t previously think I would ever visit. I got into photography and I took painting. My personal repertoire of what and who exists in the world could only grow, giving me more tools to mix and match.

Attitude, length of time overseas and the degree of difference between cultures all contribute to how much the overseas experience can influence creativity. Some people embrace the differences and the prospect of incorporating them into their lives. I was having the time of my life. More time in one country rather than many, means greater immersion into a culture. A culture however that is too different can be a negative factor, as an individual will refrain from engaging with the new culture.

Norwegians kind of made it easy for me. They invited me to their holiday dinners, their family homes, and they speak English better than I do.

Loss of cultural inhibitions

I can’t say my creativity cup “ranneth” over in Norway. In fact, I’m not sure what I did for a long time. While I did achieve certain goals to my pleasant surprise, I didn’t bring home a life-saving or otherwise billion dollar invention. But I can clearly remember feeling incredibly free thinking.

Moving to a different country erases cultural, familial, and social barriers. Even a short vacation can simulate this feeling, which is a reason many of us like to travel.

The absence of the immediate presence of my own culture, family, and friends set me free, for seven years.

Social barriers-I left them at LAX. It took more time to overcome expected professional behaviors. Maybe a couple of years even. I eventually dropped those too when I decided to go all out for a project I had wanted to do in the USA, but couldn’t. My project began to grow, and as I reached out to other scientists in Europe, I was kind of impressed with the ideas I came up with to answer my specific scientific questions. Really on my own, as I was a bit of an island in Norway.

I was naïve about how relationships worked in my profession in Europe. European science operates in many ways in a traditional and very hierarchical way. I saw how people could work together rather than how they had been working together. I saw Norway as an unrealized research institute in many ways and encouraged my colleagues to consider alternative approaches to the way things had been done for years.

There is also this overwhelming feeling of “I just gotta go for it.” The point of leaving your own country and everything you know is not to do more of the same.

Say good-bye to your old identity

The stripping of cultural barriers emerges in other ways. You look more deeply into what makes you, you. You start to evaluate whether the way you think or act truly reflects your own code of behavior or merely your cultural upbringing. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with a Frenchman and an Italian in which we all declared that we didn’t previously understand how American, French, Italian we were until we moved to Norway.

Honestly, I felt for a long time I was just goofing around. I don’t remember thinking so differently about myself until one day it hit me on the head. I felt in a sense I was now unable to breathe because Norway has its own cultural taboos to live by. I woke up one morning with this incredible feeling that I needed to leave the country to start the rest of my life. I wasn’t just putting myself under the microscope while I lived in Norway. I was also looking more objectively at the system I was trying to work in. Out popped the realization that I wanted something different for myself. When a critical decision had to be made, I could no longer ignore the pull away from the lab bench.

You can’t go overseas? Foster intercultural relationships instead

Most Americans will never take that leap across a border or an ocean, and maybe they don’t need to. Studies have revealed that your creativity gets a boost just through deep relationships with people from other cultures. People who have intercultural romantic relationships tend to exhibit more creativity than those who have not. It works in casual relationships also. Indian expats in the USA, for example, who maintained contact with their American friends scored higher in creativity tests and were more often engaged in innovation and entrepreneurial activities upon returning home.

Does your brain change?

The missing piece in these studies is whether the brain changes in individuals living in a new culture. Neuroscience has entered a fascinating phase due to technological capabilities (such as magnetic resonance imaging/MRI) which enable mapping of brain activity and structure in response to specific cognitive tasks. In the last several decades, investigators have learned that the normal human brain retains what is called “neuroplasticity” over the entire course of a person’s lifetime. Neuroplasticity or development of the brain-new neurons or rewiring of what’s already in place-is not limited to childhood. In adults and some animal models, exercise, learning (such as learning a second language or art), and even depression stimulate detectable changes in the adult brain over time.

Social and cognitive sciences (culture and the biological processes involved in thinking) are now capitalizing on these technological advances in neuroscience. Investigators have found that different regions of the brain are activated during various cognitive tasks among individuals from distinct cultures, such as Asia and the West. Language, for example, a basic human ability, activates both similar and unique areas of the brain in native Chinese and English speakers.

So there you have it. If you are thinking about going overseas, be prepared not only for the stories you will have to tell, but for some serious life altering insights into yourself. And just maybe a new brain. If you have an immigrant in your midst, think a little more about what they can do for you rather than what you are doing for them. If you are welcoming someone home after an overseas stint, realize they won’t be the same. Or maybe just chat up someone with an accent.

I have often joked to myself, that as pathetic as I was at it, trying to learn Norwegian woke up my brain. Science says it might be true.


What about you? How has your overseas experience changed you and your life?

©Janice Marie Nigro/

Looking for a scientific editor or writer? Contact Janice Nigro at Janice Nigro Ink. I have published in Cell, Science, and Nature, and articles I have edited have appeared in Cancer Research, PLoSONE, the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and Oncotarget.


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