The Grand Deception

When I was in college, I took a road trip across the country with the woman who is now my wife. It was a whirlwind tour. We spent several months crashing on the couches of family and friends from Washington to Maryland.

After visiting some cousins in Show Low, Arizona, we were excited to realize we weren’t far from Grand Canyon National Park. There was no question about taking the extra three-hour drive to see it. The Grand Canyon is one of those places that you don’t pass up the chance to see if that chance ever comes around. I knew that if we missed it, I would never forgive myself.

So we packed up the car and set out. The closer we got, the more excited I became. I had only seen the canyon in pictures and on television. I had pictured it in my imagination for so long—surely seeing it in person would take my breath away, just as everyone said it would. We paid the park entrance fee and drove to the first lookout we could find.

But after I walked to the ridge and looked out over the canyon, I felt…disappointed. It was pretty, sure, but I was still able to breathe just fine. Did it inspire awe? I mean, it was a large gash in the ground. I’d seen canyons before. This one was just…bigger. Did it make me contemplate my relatively insignificant size in the midst of an infinite and inscrutable universe? Not really. A sky full of stars is much more capable of that.

I joined the ranks of what is undoubtedly a very small alliance: those who were unimpressed by the Grand Canyon. Over the years, I’ve tried to rationalize my reaction. Perhaps we weren’t in the best viewing area; perhaps we would have appreciated it more if we’d been able to hike it; or, and this was the hardest possibility to get my head around, perhaps the Grand Canyon was actually just much more captivating in my imagination than it could ever be in real life. As of this writing, I have yet to return to test any of these hypotheses.

Travel “Syndromes”

There’s some small comfort in the fact that I’m not the only traveler to be disappointed by the place I’m visiting. People spend exorbitant amounts of money and time on going to new places. When those places don’t live up to expectations, it can be very difficult indeed.

But sometimes, the disappointment can be taken to the extreme, even leading to breakdowns.

In the 1980s, Professor Hiroaki Ota, a Japanese psychiatrist working in France, began to study a bizarre phenomenon he witnessed in Japanese tourists to Paris. When these tourists discovered that the City of Lights, which they had no doubt romanticized for years, was just another city full of loud traffic, scattered trash, and occasionally rude citizens, they suffered a host of intense psychological symptoms, namely “acute delusions, hallucinations, dizziness, sweating, and feelings of persecution,” according to The Atlantic. Ota dubbed the phenomenon “Paris syndrome.”

In 2006, Paris syndrome was said to affect about 12 Japanese tourists every year, many of whom had to be repatriated with the help of a doctor or nurse.

Perhaps even more pernicious is Jerusalem syndrome, which is thought to be to blame for the recent disappearance of an Irish man in the Negev desert. Jerusalem syndrome is an “acute psychotic state” in which tourists believe themselves to be Biblical figures or entertain “magical ideas” connecting holy places to health. Most of the condition’s sufferers have a history of psychotic episodes.

The Church of the Holy Sephulchre in Jerusalem

“Jerusalem, a city that conjures up a sense of the holy, the historical, and the heavenly, holds a unique attraction for people of several of the world’s faiths and religions—especially Jews, Christians and Muslims,” says a 2000 study from the British Journal of Psychiatry.

“When people dream of Jerusalem, they do not see the modern, politically controversial Jerusalem, but rather the holy biblical and religious city. Since 1980, Jerusalem’s psychiatrists have encountered an ever-increasing number of tourists who, upon arriving in Jerusalem, suffer psychotic decompensation.”

Olof Johan Sodermark, “Stendhal” (1840)/Wikimedia Commons

There’s also the phenomenon known as Stendhal syndrome, named after its founder, French author Henri-Marie Beyle, who went by the pen name Stendhal. In 1817, Beyle recorded the overwhelming emotions he felt viewing Florentine art. Sufferers from Stendhal syndrome often feel overwhelmed, anxious, and even nauseous when seeing great works of art. It is usually very short-lived, requiring no medical attention.

Michael Brein, the Travel Psychologist

I spoke with Michael Brein, the world’s first and possibly only travel psychologist, about these conditions. Brein received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in psychology from Temple University before completing a PhD in social psychology at the University of Hawaii focusing on the psychology of travel.

In over four decades, he’s traveled to more than 125 countries and interviewed over 1,000 travelers. He recalls one traveler in particular who admitted to feeling overwhelmed in the Louvre.

Ceiling of the Louvre museum in Paris

“He’s telling me he goes into the Louvre in Paris, and he’s suddenly feeling overwhelmed by the Mona Lisa and all the art,” Brein says. “He’s getting dizzy, and he’s getting nauseous. He has to sit down, and he’s thinking he’s got something coming over him.”

As the man continued talking, Brein immediately recognized these effects as Paris or Stendhal syndrome. “What he’s telling me is being overwhelmed by the stimulation of what he sees,” Brein says.

Brein admits to feeling similar effects of being overwhelmed when he was in India. “I’ve had my own experiences of feeling like I was India-ed out by the overwhelming stimuli after a few weeks in India,” he says. “I just couldn’t deal with it anymore. It was so much and so intense and so continuous. But I’m not calling that any kind of ‘syndrome.’ …It’s an instance that reflects that all of this over-emotional stimulation … can become temporarily kind of debilitating, to some extent.”

Bangalore, India

I asked Brein why, when traveling can open us up to these unpleasant emotions, do humans still feel the need to do it? He answered that our need for travel is rooted in the pyramid—rather, Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, the pyramid of basic needs that must be met for people to survive and thrive.

“When you’re in a travel situation, I find that the pace is quickened, there’s so much stimuli impinging upon us at every turn, there’s something new, exciting, interesting,” he says.

Vienna, Austria

In addition to our natural curiosity, making your way in a new environment where everyone speaks another language can be self-fulfilling and satisfying. When those needs aren’t met, however, the reaction can be negative.

Traveler Types

Brein says all travelers fit along a continuum. The first stage is the tourist, in which people are passive consumers, superficially involved with the cultures they’re visiting.

“Over time, as you learn more about the benefits of travel and how to benefit from travel, you morph into the traveler,” he says. “The traveler begins to realize the things that were most beneficial, exciting, and rewarding … are probably the people connections that they’ve made.”

The third and final stage of the continuum, he says, is the adventurer, the person who boldly steps into new experiences and situations.

Ian Korn, an NYC architect who’s studied abroad in Madrid, London, and Kyoto, has his own theories on the types of travelers.

“I figure there are two types of travelers, or maybe three. Some people go to a place and schedule every minute, running around from attraction to restaurant to museum to historical site, hitting everything in their Lonely Planet Top 10 but never really getting a chance to settle,” he says. “I put myself in the second category, with people who visit and take things as they come. I like to pick one, maybe two really big things to do each day—say, the Tower of London—and then just wander and see where things take me.”

Perhaps that’s the key to avoiding becoming overwhelmed: taking things as they come, not having a rigid expectation of your destination.

Oh, and the third type of traveler? “[They’re] kind of like my parents,” says Korn. “Go someplace new, then stay in the hotel watching TV and swimming all day, maybe venturing out to a chain family restaurant in the evening.”

Counteracting Culture Shock

Phenomena like Paris syndrome, Stendhal syndrome, and even Jerusalem syndrome can certainly stand in the way of someone becoming a true adventurer. But the more you travel, the easier it can become. Brein is careful to note that these travel phenomena are not the same thing as culture shock.

Culture shock is “a time when a person becomes aware of the differences and/or conflicts in values and customs between their home culture and the new culture they are in” and is marked by “anxiety, confusion, homesickness, and/or anger,” according to the University of Kansas’ psychological services. It often arises when someone is in a foreign country for a prolonged period of time.

Its effects can be easy to counteract. “You need to understand the people better,” says Brein. “What that means is understanding not only the verbal interactions you have with other people, but the very subtle, nonverbal, nonlinguistic, and cultural/social interactions.”

To get there, travelers just need to push through the difficult experiences. “If you persist, you may prevail,” Brein says. “Your language gets better, and then it’s an upward trend.”