Are we forever going on the wrong kind of holiday?

What's your dream holiday? Trekking through a rainforest? White-water rafting? New research shows that most of us think we're far more daring than we really are, says Nick Duerden

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The Independent Travel

I am sitting in a room – a "controlled environment," says the scientist chap – with my brain wired up to a computer in the hope of determining whether the holidays I suggest I like to go on are the holidays that I "really" want to go on. The discrepancies between one and the other, by all accounts, can be considerable, and are by no means unique to me. We all continually say one thing while meaning quite another, the brain's inability to lie one of its more enduring traits. Within the realms of our holidaying habits, this means that while we profess to love the "idea" of diving and abseiling, of rock climbing and living on our wits in the jungle, what we are really drawn to is a couple of weeks by the pool with the latest Jilly Cooper in hand. The collective failure to recognise this within ourselves means, essentially, that we are forever going on the wrong kind of holiday.

"A lot of the people we tested said that they like to go on holidays to do adrenalin sports," says Dr Jack Lewis, the neuroscientist at the head of this first study into the psychology of travel, "but it seems they say this largely because they want to be seen as 'that' kind of person. When we looked into their brain data, however, it revealed that they were far more drawn to laidback and pedestrian activities, such as lounging by the pool, or staying in bed watching a DVD."

Dr Lewis, a chisel-jawed 32-year-old who is fast becoming Sky One's "go-to" science guy, says he jumped at the chance to study our holiday habits largely because it had never been done before. "Our findings were as unexpected as they were fascinating," he says.

A survey last year quizzed more than 1,000 adults on what they thought they wanted from an average holiday, and the findings rather bucked the caricature of the average Brit abroad who slowly stews in their own juices on an overcrowded Spanish beach. Some 93 per cent claimed that their main motivation for going on holiday was to experience somewhere new, while nine out of 10 were intent on immersing themselves in the local culture. But then just as many preferred more indolent pastimes as well, the vast majority questioned wanting little more than to lose themselves in a good book. It was the former group's findings that Dr Lewis wanted to investigate further.

With his team from the University of Sussex, he hand-picked 32 guinea pigs via electroencephalography (EEG) tests, that measures the electrical activity in the brain when stimulated with images of various holiday scenarios. These they compared with what the individuals "claimed" they felt most drawn to. The results split the 32 into four definable categories: laid-back extroverts; anxious extroverts; laid-back introverts; and anxious introverts. Each group, says Dr Lewis, suggested that they liked mind-expanding activities the most, and yet only one group was most engaged by those images. And it wasn't the anticipated laid-back extroverts: "No, it was the laid-back introverts," he says, "those people who are positively engaged with their environment but who tend to experience negative mood states and often feel anxious."

The purported extroverts, meanwhile, were more engaged by images of swimming pools and galleries. Why?

Something called "positive illusion," he says. "We all have an ideal of what we are into, but it doesn't necessarily satisfy our true needs. A lot of extroverts who say they like adrenalin sports, for example, haven't done anything remotely adrenalin-like for years. They'd like to do so again, but when they arrive on holiday, they very rarely leave the beach..."

The research, ordered by Thomson Holidays and proclaimed by both parties as "revelatory", might just change the way the holiday industry goes about selling its packages in the future. "If we are positioning ourselves as experts in holidays," says Thomson's director Christian Cull, "then we want to make sure that we understand as much as we can about our customers. This is the first of its kind for the industry, and can only help us determine how we communicate with them from now on."

Although the results of the study have yet to be fully absorbed, they confirm that while a great many of us like to consider Bruce Parry a kindred spirit, and that we too are in pursuit of culture-clashing global adventures, on a cerebral level, we actually hark instead back to the comforts of Judith Chalmers, a four-star hotel room, and an all-you-can-eat buffet. And that, Dr Lewis insists, is nothing to be ashamed of. "Who wouldn't want, primarily, to relax on holiday? After all, we've earned it."

Nevertheless, studies do show that we are incrementally moving away from an entirely inactive two weeks at the beach. We live, these days, in an information age in which we are used to, and now positively demand, stimulation on a minute-by-minute basis. Why else would we take our BlackBerrys and iPads with us?

"It only takes a week lying on a beach," Dr Lewis says, "to remind ourselves just how boring lying on a beach can be. In other words, we increasingly want options. Even if we don't take them all, we want to know they are there." But just how do so many people experience such a disconnect between what they say they want and what they really want?

"Here," he says, now leading me towards the controlled environment. "I'll show you." Seated in front of a computer screen, I am fitted with something resembling a swimming cap, and attached up to wires which will monitor my brain activity while exposed to familiar holiday snapshots: a golden beach, an underwater dive, a bustling night market, a heaving night club. Meanwhile, I physically rate each one of these from 1 to 5 in order of the levels of pleasure I believe they will bring.

My results, when they come the following day, deflate me much as they presumably did everyone who took the study. Though I don't fall quite cleanly into any of Dr Lewis's four personality types, he suggests I am a shade more more laid-back extrovert than introvert, but only just. "Your neuroticism score is relatively low," he says, "but neither are you a full-on extrovert." This means that though I may well have enjoyed my three-day trek to Machu Picchu seven years ago, there is good reason why I have done nothing quite so gruelling since. "Your brain was much more powerfully engaged by familiar activities," he says, concluding that, "you might not be quite as adventurous as you like to think."

While travel agents are not about to subject EEG tests on every customer, the tests could likely herald a more thorough and scientific approach to the selling of our two weeks in the sun. "The conventional way to sell a holiday is to ask people where they want to go and when," says Thomson's Christian Cull. "But now we're realising there may be a less conventional way, and also perhaps a better one."